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Photo of Super Typhoon Bopha.

Super typhoons are so powerful they can be seen from space, as seen from this photo of Super Typhoon Bopha taken on Dec. 2.

Photograph by NASSA ISS/JSC

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published November 7, 2013

A powerful typhoon that will hit the Philippines on Friday has triggered mass evacuations from coastal and low-lying areas as the nation's islands brace for the storm's surge.

Super typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda, has strengthened into one of the most powerful tropical storms ever recorded, with sustained 190-mile-per-hour (306-kilometer-per-hour) winds and gusts as high as 230 miles-per-hour (370 kilometers-per-hour).

The Category 5 typhoon is expected to hit the Philippines at full strength.

"The deadliest threat from Philippine typhoons is usually heavy rains, since the islands are very mountainous, leading to very high rainfall amounts capable of causing dangerous flash floods and mudslides," says meteorologist Jeff Masters on his WunderBlog website.

How do typhoons differ from hurricanes or cyclones? It turns out they don’t, except for their location.

Rotating Sea Storms

Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are all the same weather phenomenon. Scientists just call these storms different things depending on where they occur:

In the Atlantic and northern Pacific, the storms are called hurricanes, after the Caribbean god of evil, named Hurrican.

In the northwestern Pacific, the same powerful storms are called typhoons. In the southeastern Indian Ocean and southwestern Pacific, they are called severe tropical cyclones.

In the northern Indian Ocean, they're called severe cyclonic storms. In the southwestern Indian Ocean, they're just tropical cyclones.

To be classified as a hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone, a storm must reach wind speeds of at least 74 miles per hour (119 kilometers per hour).

If a hurricane's winds reach speeds of 111 miles per hour (179 kilometers per hour), it is upgraded to an intense hurricane.

If a typhoon hits 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour)—as Haiyan has—then it becomes a super typhoon.

Different Seasons

While the Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, the typhoon and cyclone seasons follow slightly different patterns.

In the northeastern Pacific, the official season runs from May 15 to November 30. In the northwestern Pacific, typhoons are most common from late June through December. And the northern Indian Ocean sees cyclones from April to December.

Whatever you call them, these monster storms are powerful natural events with the capacity to wreak some serious havoc.

According to NOAA's National Hurricane Center, the average hurricane eye—the still center where pressure is lowest and air temperature is highest—stretches 30 miles (48 kilometers) across, with some growing as large as 120 miles (200 kilometers) wide.

The strongest storms, equivalent to Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, have sustained winds that exceed 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour).

With the aid of satellites and computer models, such storms can be predicted several days in advance and are relatively easy to track. But as Hurricane Sandy showed recently, predicting the path that a hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone will take after it's formed is still tricky.

Follow Ker Than on Twitter.

22 comments
Harshvardhan Kumar
Harshvardhan Kumar

[Greek tuphn, whirlwind, and Arabic fn, deluge (from Greek tuphn), and Chinese (Cantonese) taaîfung (equivalent to Chinese (Mandarin) tái, great + Chinese (Mandarin) fng, wind).]

Word History: The history of typhoon presents a perfect example of the long journey that many words made in coming to English. It traveled from Greece to Arabia to India, and also arose independently in China, before assuming its current form in our language. The Greek word tuphn, used both as the name of the father of the winds and a common noun meaning "whirlwind, typhoon," was borrowed into Arabic during the Middle Ages, when Arabic learning both preserved and expanded the classical heritage and passed it on to Europe and other parts of the world. fn, the Arabic version of the Greek word, passed into languages spoken in India, where Arabic-speaking Muslim invaders had settled in the 11th century. Thus the descendant of the Arabic word, passing into English (first recorded in 1588) through an Indian language and appearing in English in forms such as touffon and tufan, originally referred specifically to a severe storm in India. The modern form of typhoon was influenced by a borrowing from the Cantonese variety of Chinese, namely the word taaîfung, and respelled to make it look more like Greek. Taaîfung, meaning literally "great wind," was coincidentally similar to the Arabic borrowing and is first recorded in English guise as tuffoon in 1699. The various forms coalesced and finally became typhoon, a spelling that first appeared in 1819 in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

Magdalena Subong
Magdalena Subong

Hi! Your web site is of great help to my 9yo daughter, now in Grade 4. My late father (RIP-05/16/2011) used to read your magazine, so are we his children. Nowadays, one should be well-informed of what's happening around the world particularly it's environment.Thank you for inviting me to register. More power, National Geographic!

Romeo Caoili
Romeo Caoili

I never thought of those words are on the same meaning, typhoon, cyclone, hurricane some call it the twister of this deadly storm thanks to national geo. for educating me.

I had a bad memory when I think about typhoon in the Philippines, I  thought it was a dream that I was being blown by the wind, but when I woke up the roof cave in i was so lucky i was sleeping on the lower part of this double deck bed, everything starts flying out

vu dinh
vu dinh

I really so worry , my hometown ,my house ,my family is facing the most powerful typhoon. I can not do anything when think a about it. I wish I was there with my family ,help them and help me.

Meredith B.
Meredith B.

Wow. Umm...wow. I never knew cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes were all the same. My prayers go to the people of the Philippines. Thank you to NatGeo for providing more information on this natural disaster (and phenomenon). 

PS: Isn't typhoon a greek word? Wasn't it a myth, like a monster or something? Kindly respond below :)

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

Im guessing that ANY storm qualifies as "powerful enough to be seen from space"

As for the word typhoon the 1st recorded usage was by European explorers and its was taken from persian pilots from their word tufan. Tufan had been in use for millennia in persia. European explorers in turn took he bastardized version to Japan and China where is started showing quickly in their texts

haojie yang
haojie yang

Correct Fredric, typhoon is from Chinese 台风,NOT 大风

Fredric Dennis Williams
Fredric Dennis Williams

Correct the spelling of "Philippines" in the first (bold-face) line.

And add, perhaps, that "typhoon" probably comes from the Chinese 大风 -- tai foong -- big wind.

Olen Jones
Olen Jones

Some awesome magic quantum physics stuff going on here, taking this photo three weeks in the future!

Ivan Huang
Ivan Huang

@Meredith B.  no , it actually is from local language in Southeast China.

James Durston
James Durston

@Olen Jones Or... perhaps they're correctly dating the picture to Dec last year when Typhoon Bopha occurred..?

Madison Panchenko
Madison Panchenko

The most deadliest monster of greek mythology hmm...Typhos was the most deadly monster of Greek mythology. The last son of Gaia, fathered by Tartarus, he was known as the "Father of All Monsters" his wife Echidna was likewise the "Mother of All Monsters."

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