Hurricane vs Tornado

Many people have already heard about both hurricanes and tornadoes and know that both are weather phenomenons that come with strong winds and can cause great damage. In the following we will compare and contrast hurricanes and tornadoes to highlight their similarities and explain their differences.

Tornado Destruction

Destruction after a tornado

What are the similarities between hurricanes and tornadoes?

There must be a reason for the confusion about the use of the terms that describe these distinct weather phenomenons. So let’s ask the following: How are hurricanes and tornadoes alike?

  1. Both hurricanes and tornadoes are destructive storms.
  2. Both storms are caused by instability in atmospheric conditions.
  3. Hurricanes and tornadoes rotate clockwise in the southern hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere.

That’s it. Other than being storms caused by atmospheric conditions that leave trail of destruction behind them, hurricanes and tornadoes don’t have much in common. To better understand the two concepts, let’s focus on their differences instead.

What is the difference between a hurricane and a tornado?

In general, there exist 6 factors that can be used to explain the difference between hurricanes and tornadoes:

  1. Where they form
  2. How big they are
  3. How long they last
  4. How strong the winds are
  5. Number of occurrences per year
  6. Number of days for advanced warning

Let’s have a look at those 6 factors in greater detail.

Hurricane Tornado
Formation Over water Over land
Size Several hundred miles wide No more than 0.25 miles
Duration Up to 3 weeks No more than 1 hour
Wind Speed
74-180mph 40-320mph
Frequency/Year ~ 10 in the North Atlantic Ocean 800-1,000 (USA)
Warning Several days 15-30 minutes

1. Where they form

Hurricanes begin over warm water in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and develop best when far from the polar and subtropical jet stream.

Polar and Subtropical Jet Streams

Polar and Subtropical Jet Streams

Tornadoes form over land and form within storms that are often very close to the jet stream.

2. How big they are

Hurricanes are extremely large storms that can reach up to several hundred miles in width.

Hurricane Isabel (2003) from the ISS

Hurricane Isabel (2003) as seen from the ISS

Compared to this, tornadoes are rather tiny. They are usually no more than 0.25 miles wide.

A tornado near Anadarko, Oklahoma

A tornado near Anadarko, Oklahoma.

3. How long they last

With up to 3 weeks, hurricanes can last much longer than tornadoes. The latter one usually lasts no more than one hour.

4. How strong the winds are

Hurricanes come with winds of usually less than 180mph. Their strength is measured on the Saffir-Simpson scale (1-5).

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Tornadoes, such as the Bridge Creek–Moore Tornado, can reach wind speeds of over 300mph. A tornado’s strength is indicated on the Fujita Scale (F1-F5).

Damage in Oklahoma City after the Bridge-Creek Moore Tornado 1999.

Damage in Oklahoma City after the Bridge-Creek Moore Tornado 1999.

5. Number of occurrences per year

An average of 10-15 hurricanes can be witnessed in the North Atlantic Ocean and Eastern Pacific Ocean per year. Tornadoes occur much more frequently. Between 800-1,000 can occur in one year in the United States alone, not counting the storms in Northern South America, South Mexico, Northern Australia, Southern Asia and Africa. All in all, several thousand tornadoes occur per year worldwide.

6. Number of days for advanced warning

Authorities can issue hurricane warnings several days before the actual event occurs.

A Doppler on Wheels unit observing a tornado near Attica, Kansas.

A Doppler on Wheels unit observing a tornado near Attica, Kansas.

Sadly, tornadoes are much more unpredictable in nature and forecasters usually have no more than 15-30 minutes of time to warn a population of the inherent catastrophe.

References: Hurricanescience.org, Softschools.com, Wikipedia.com, Wikipedia.com