What’s the Difference Between a Tornado and a Hurricane?

We are still powerless in the face of natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes, despite our advances in science and technology. Tornadoes and hurricanes are both wind-driven calamities that can cause significant damage to people and property.

Can you tell how these calamities differ from one another, though?

Both tornadoes and hurricanes are characterised by high horizontal winds, as we’ve just discussed, but that’s where the similarities end. Tornadoes form on land, but hurricanes form in bodies of water. Hurricanes are substantially larger than tornadoes in terms of size, with a diameter of 300-400 times that of the latter. Tornadoes have half the wind speed of hurricanes, but they can stay far longer (about a couple of weeks). Finally, while tornadoes strike the United States over 1000 times per year, hurricanes strike the world approximately 10-15 times each year.

In this post, we’ll look at the distinctions between tornadoes and hurricanes on a variety of levels, including their creation, speed, and severity.

At a glance: Tornado vs. Hurricane

ShapeTornadoes are shaped like a funnel, with a wide top growing narrower towards the bottom. This shape is also referred to as a “vortex”.Hurricanes are circular in shape and possess a well-defined center. The winds are light in the center but increase rapidly as they move towards the edge.
Place of originLandWater
Wind speedAverage wind speed ranges between 160-200 mph, but can also cross 300 mph in severe cases.Wind speed doesn’t cross 180 mph.
Size (diameter)Less than half a mile.Extends up to 200-300 miles on average.
Other characteristics· Strong cyclonic winds
· Large hail
· Heavy rainfall
· Thunderstorm
· Clouds to ground lightning
· Heavy winds (squall)
· Flood
· Heavy rainfall
· Thunderstorm
· Storm surge
· Tornadoes
Forms of precipitationSleet, rain, and hailRain
RotationNorthern hemisphere: counter-clockwise
Southern hemisphere: clockwise
Northern hemisphere: counter-clockwise
Southern hemisphere: clockwise
Most-affected locationsIn the midwestern parts of the United States, where the convergence of the cold, as well as warm fronts, are common.The Caribbean Sea
LifespanTornadoes don’t usually last for longer than an hour.Hurricanes can last for 2-3 weeks at times.
Occurrences per yearCan occur anywhere between 800-1200 times in the United States.Usually occurs about 10-15 times worldwide.
Advanced warningWeather forecasts can usually warn about a tornado only 10-15 minutes prior to it.The area where a hurricane is about to hit can be predicted about 4-7 days beforehand by the weather forecasters.

Tornadoes are created in a variety of ways.

Let us first define tornadoes so that we can better comprehend how they arise.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that collides with the ground as well as a cumulonimbus cloud.

Tornadoes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they are most commonly seen as a condensation funnel emerging from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud. There is usually a swirling cloud of dirt and debris at the tornado’s foot due to the speed of wind spinning inside it.

Let’s get down to business with the formation.

The heating of the air near ground level is the initial phase in the production of a tornado. Localized pockets of air begin to rise as they get warmer than their surroundings. Cumulus clouds form in this fashion, and they continue to grow until they become a storm (cumulonimbus) cloud.

The thunderstorm updraught may begin rotating if the cloud producing operation occurs in an atmosphere where the wind speed increases dramatically with height (high vertical wind shear).

The strong updraught then tilts the rolling motion vertically, causing the spin to occur along a vertical axis, similar to the action of a merry-go-round.

Supercells are thunderstorms with a lot of rotation and a lot of rain.

The storm’s downdraughts assist in focusing the rotation and lowering it to lower levels. The storm’s spinning eventually becomes so intense and focused that a narrow, vertical column of vigorously rotating air forms.

A tornado is formed when this column of air approaches the ground. Because of the formation of the condensation funnel, which is caused by the reduced pressure within the tornado vortex, it is nearly always visible. A modest cloud of dust and debris swirling around the tornado’s base also aids in its visibility.

Cold downdraughts encircle the tornado after a while, essentially cutting off the supply of warm air. By this time, the tornado has narrowed considerably, and the vortex has dissipated.

Tornadoes come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Tornado of Ropes

Rope tornadoes are the smallest of all tornadoes, with a thin, almost rope-like look.

Despite the fact that all tornadoes start out as rope tornadoes and then grow larger, the rope tornadoes evaporate into thin air. As a result, these tornadoes usually last the least amount of time.

Tornado on the Cone

Cone tornadoes, like rope tornadoes, get their name from their cone-like form. When these tornadoes collide with thunderstorms, they have a broad opening that narrows as they go down to the earth.

Tornado on the Cone

Tornado on the Wedge

Wedge tornadoes are the most dangerous of the tornado types we’ve discussed so far. These tornadoes have the largest diameter of the three and, as a result, appear to be wider than they are tall.

Wedge tornadoes have been responsible for nearly all of history’s most devastating tornadoes.

Tornado with many vortices

A multiple vortex tornado happens when more than one rotating air column forms at the same time and in the same location.

Both air columns begin to spin around a single centre while revolving on their own axes in this situation. These tornadoes are extremely powerful and wreak significant damage in the area.

What causes hurricanes to form?

Let’s take a look at what hurricanes are before we get into how they form. Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that originate over the Atlantic Ocean or the eastern Pacific Ocean.

We shall describe how a tropical cyclone is generated in this section because all tropical cyclones, regardless of their names, are formed in the same way.

Consider the tropical cyclone as a massive engine powered by wet, warm air. These cyclones are always created on the ocean’s surface because they need moist air as a fuel. Because the air at the ocean’s surface is constantly warm, it rises, forming a low-pressure zone below.

The air from the surrounding areas pushes into the low-pressure area as the warm air rises, finally becoming warm and ascending upwards. As the process repeats, air from the surrounding areas continues to swirl into the low-pressure zone.

Meanwhile, as it moves away from the ocean’s surface, the warm air that has risen slowly cools. The vapour present in this air condenses and forms clouds when it cools.

An eye forms in the middle of the cloud and wind system as it develops and swirls faster. This eye features a low-pressure area, whereas the surrounding air pressure is higher. A storm is created in this manner.

The speed of a storm, a tropical storm, and a tropical cyclone distinguishes them. When a storm reaches 39 mph, it is classified as a Tropical Storm. When a tropical storm hits 73 miles per hour, it is classified as a Tropical Cyclone or Hurricane.

Differences in geographical location

Tornadoes and hurricanes have various origins, as we’ve already established. Hurricanes occur over warm waters, whereas tornadoes form on land.

We’ll take a closer look at when and where these calamities strike in this section.

Tornadoes can happen anywhere.

As we’ve seen, thunderstorms are critical in the development of tornadoes, thus tornadoes are more likely to occur in places where thunderstorm conditions are optimum. As a result, tornadoes are best suited to the Great Plains in the central United States.

In these plains, warm air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico collides with cold air moving south from Canada, resulting in storms. As a result, the area is now known as the Tornado Valley.

While tornadoes can occur at any time of year in the United States, they are more common in the spring and summer, with May and June being the peak tornado months.

Hurricanes strike in a variety of places.

If you read the last part carefully, you may have observed that hurricanes require a big amount of warm water to form. This is why they can only be found in the world’s biggest basins. The activity of some of these cyclones is greater than that of others.

The Atlantic Basin, which comprises the eastern and central North Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea, is a hurricane hotspot.

Most hurricanes strike between June 1st and November 30th, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hence the term “hurricane season.” Hurricanes have, on rare occasions, occurred outside of the hurricane season.

Intensity differences

Because tornadoes and hurricanes are two distinct occurrences, it’s only natural that their strengths and intensities differ. But, if we compare the two disasters, which one will come out on top?

Let’s learn a little about how the strength of these disasters is measured before we get started.

How can you know how strong a tornado is?

The Fujita Scale, which was created in 2007, was previously used to determine the strength of a tornado. The Enhanced Fujita Scale is a modified version of the same scale that we use to estimate the strength of a tornado.

The tornado’s strength is measured on a scale of 0 to 5. In the table below, you can see how the scale works:

CategorySustained wind
Types of damage
EF-065-85 mphSome roofs could be peeled off; shallow-rooted trees could get pushed over; minor damage to sidings and gutters.
EF-186-110 mphA considerable amount of stripped roofs; severe damage to mobile homes; broken doors, windows, and other glasses.
EF-2111-135 mphRoofs of the well-constructed houses could be ripped off; home foundations shifted; cars lifted off ground; large trees uprooted.
EF-3136-165 mphLarge constructions like multi-storeyed buildings and malls were damaged; heavy automobiles lifted off ground, trains overturned.
EF-4166-200 mphMost well-constructed houses and structured completely leveled; cars were thrown far away; small missiles generated.
EF-5more than 200 mphStructural deformation in high-rise buildings; houses and automobiles lifted off ground and swept away; larger missiles flying through the air.

How do you figure out how strong a hurricane is?

A hurricane’s strength is defined by the amount of damage it causes to any property in its path. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale was created to assist us in making this assessment.

Based on the potential for property damage, this scale assigns a rating of 1 to 5 to the hurricane. The latter three of these five categories are deemed major because they can result in severe loss of life and property.

CategorySustained wind
Types of damage
174-95 mphPossibility of damage to the shingles, gutters, and sidings of well-framed houses; tree branches snapped.
296-110 mphMinor damages to the roofing and siding of well-built houses; shallow-rooted trees uprooted.
3 (major)111-129 mphSevere damage to the walls and roofing of well-framed houses; roadblocks caused due to uprooted trees; expectation of near-total power outage.
4 (major)130-156 mphLoss of exterior walls and roof structures in well-framed houses; power poles downed and trees uprooted; no power or electricity for days, unless the cyclone passes.
5 (major)157 mph and higherDestruction of well-framed houses, total wall collapse, and roof failure; power outage for weeks; area uninhabitable for months.


Although tornadoes and hurricanes are both air-powered natural disasters, we discovered in this essay that they are significantly distinct from one another. While tornadoes form on land, hurricanes form on huge amounts of water. Tornadoes have wind speeds that are substantially higher than hurricane winds.

While tornadoes only last a few minutes, hurricanes can linger for days, if not weeks, once they begin.

Read more: Is NO3 a polar or nonpolar substance?

Misha Khatri
Misha Khatri is an emeritus professor in the University of Notre Dame's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He graduated from Northern Illinois University with a BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics and a PhD in Physical Analytical Chemistry from the University of Utah.


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