The term “tropical” refers to both the geographic origin of these systems, which form almost exclusively in tropical regions of the globe, and their formation in maritime tropical air masses. The term “cyclone” refers to such storms’ cyclonic nature, with counterclockwise rotation in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise rotation in the Southern Hemisphere. Depending on its location and strength, a tropical cyclone is referred to by names such as hurricane, typhoon, tropical storm, cyclonic storm, tropical depression, and simply cyclone.
While tropical cyclones can produce extremely powerful winds and torrential rain, they are also able to produce high waves and damaging storm surge as well as spawning tornadoes. They develop over large bodies of warm water, and lose their strength if they move over land. This is why coastal regions can receive significant damage from a tropical cyclone, while inland regions are relatively safe from receiving strong winds. Heavy rains, however, can produce significant flooding inland, and storm surges can produce extensive coastal flooding up to 40 kilometres (25 mi) from the coastline. Although their effects on human populations can be devastating, tropical cyclones can also relieve drought conditions. They also carry heat and energy away from the tropics and transport it toward temperate latitudes, which makes them an important part of the global atmospheric circulation mechanism. As a result, tropical cyclones help to maintain equilibrium in the Earth’s troposphere, and to maintain a relatively stable and warm temperature worldwide.
Many tropical cyclones develop when the atmospheric conditions around a weak disturbance in the atmosphere are favorable. The background environment is modulated by climatological cycles and patterns such as the Madden-Julian oscillation, El Niño-Southern Oscillation, and the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation. Others hurricane form when other types of cyclones acquire tropical characteristics. Tropical systems are then moved by steering winds in the troposphere; if the conditions remain favorable, the tropical disturbance intensifies, and can even develop an eye. On the other end of the spectrum, if the conditions around the system deteriorate or the tropical cyclone makes landfall, the system weakens and eventually dissipates. It is not possible to artificially induce the dissipation of these systems with current technology.
All tropical cyclones are areas of low atmospheric pressure in the Earth’s atmosphere. The pressures recorded at the centers of tropical cyclones are among the lowest that occur on Earth’s surface at sea level. Tropical cyclones are characterized and driven by the release of large amounts of latent heat of condensation, which occurs when moist air is carried upwards and its water vapor condenses. This heat is distributed vertically around the center of the storm. Thus, at any given altitude (except close to the surface, where water temperature dictates air temperature) the environment inside the cyclone is warmer than its outer surroundings.
A strong tropical cyclone will harbor an area of sinking air at the center of circulation. If this area is strong enough, it can develop into a large “eye”. Weather in the eye is normally calm and free of clouds, although the sea may be extremely violent. The eye is normally circular in shape, and may range in size from 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) to 370 kilometres (230 mi) in diameter. Intense, mature tropical cyclones can sometimes exhibit an outward curving of the eyewall’s top, making it resemble a football stadium; this phenomenon is thus sometimes referred to as the stadium effect.
There are other features that either surround the eye, or cover it. The central dense overcast is the concentrated area of strong thunderstorm activity near the center of a tropical cyclone; in weaker tropical cyclones, the CDO may cover the center completely. The eyewall is a circle of strong thunderstorms that surrounds the eye; here is where the greatest wind speeds are found, where clouds reach the highest, and precipitation is the heaviest. The heaviest wind damage occurs where a tropical cyclone’s eyewall passes over land. Eyewall replacement cycles occur naturally in intense tropical cyclones. When cyclones reach peak intensity they usually have an eyewall and radius of maximum winds that contract to a very small size, around 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) to 25 kilometres (16 mi). Outer rainbands can organize into an outer ring of thunderstorms that slowly moves inward and robs the inner eyewall of its needed moisture and angular momentum. When the inner eyewall weakens, the tropical cyclone weakens (in other words, the maximum sustained winds weaken and the central pressure rises.) The outer eyewall replaces the inner one completely at the end of the cycle. The storm can be of the same intensity as it was previously or even stronger after the eyewall replacement cycle finishes. The storm may strengthen again as it builds a new outer ring for the next eyewall replacement.
One measure of the size of a tropical cyclone is determined by measuring the distance from its center of circulation to its outermost closed isobar, also known as its ROCI. If the radius is less than two degrees of latitude or 222 kilometres (138 mi), then the cyclone is “very small” or a “midget”. A radius between 3 and 6 latitude degrees or 333 kilometres (207 mi) to 670 kilometres (420 mi) are considered “average-sized”. “Very large” tropical cyclones have a radius of greater than 8 degrees or 888 kilometres (552 mi). Use of this measure has objectively determined that tropical cyclones in the northwest Pacific Ocean are the largest on earth on average, with Atlantic tropical cyclones roughly half their size. Other methods of determining a tropical cyclone’s size include measuring the radius of gale force winds and measuring the radius at which its relative vorticity field decreases to 1×10−5 s−1 from its center.
A tropical cyclone’s primary energy source is the release of the heat of condensation from water vapor condensing at high altitudes, with solar heating being the initial source for evaporation. Therefore, a tropical cyclone can be visualized as a giant vertical heat engine supported by mechanics driven by physical forces such as the rotation and gravity of the Earth. In another way, tropical cyclones could be viewed as a special type of mesoscale convective complex, which continues to develop over a vast source of relative warmth and moisture. While an initial warm core system, such as an organized thunderstorm complex, is necessary for the formation of hurricane or a tropical cyclone, a large flux of energy is needed to lower atmospheric pressure more than a few millibars (0.10 inch of mercury). The inflow of warmth and moisture from the underlying ocean surface is critical for tropical cyclone strengthening. A significant amount of the inflow in the cyclone is in the lowest 1 kilometre (3,300 ft) of the atmosphere.
Condensation leads to higher wind speeds, as a tiny fraction of the released energy is converted into mechanical energy; the faster winds and lower pressure associated with them in turn cause increased surface evaporation and thus even more condensation. Much of the released energy drives updrafts that increase the height of the storm clouds, speeding up condensation. This positive feedback loop continues for as long as conditions are favorable for tropical cyclone development. Factors such as a continued lack of equilibrium in air mass distribution would also give supporting energy to the cyclone. The rotation of the Earth causes the system to spin, an effect known as the Coriolis effect, giving it a cyclonic characteristic and affecting the trajectory of the storm.
What primarily distinguishes tropical cyclones from other meteorological phenomena is deep convection as a driving force. Because convection is strongest in a tropical climate, it defines the initial domain of the tropical cyclone. By contrast, mid-latitude cyclones draw their energy mostly from pre-existing horizontal temperature gradients in the atmosphere. To continue to drive its heat engine, a tropical cyclone must remain over warm water, which provides the needed atmospheric moisture to keep the positive feedback loop running. When a tropical cyclone passes over land, it is cut off from its heat source and its strength diminishes rapidly.