Travel topics > Stay safe > Severe weather > Cyclones
Cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons are circular storms with high winds and rains that form over water. They often cause flooding and other damage, and therefore are a threat to travellers, particularly near coastlines in the Southern United States, the Caribbean, Japan, and the Philippines.
Unlike a tornado which inflicts damage only along a narrow path, a cyclone is generally spread out over a broad area; they can be hundreds of miles wide. Cyclones form around low pressure areas and the winds spiral into those. They are usually doughnut-shaped, a circular band of high winds and heavy rain around a relatively calm center called the eye of the storm. An observer near the center of the storm's path sees two intense blasts of wind and rain separated by a calm period in the eye. Out toward the edge, there is only one blast of wind and rain but it may last longer.
There are two different types of cyclones:
- Tropical cyclones, which are generally the most dangerous and form over tropical waters
- Extratropical cyclones, which occur in cold regions and are often the remnants of tropical cyclones
Tropical cyclones go by different names. They are sometimes just referred to as cyclones, but on the east coast of Asia they are referred to as typhoons and in the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean they are referred to as hurricanes.
This article covers only the dangers of cyclones for travellers on land. However, cyclones are also a major hazard at sea as that is where they usually develop; see our article Cruising on small craft for basic advice and consult specialist publications for more detailed advice.
Areas where cyclones are common often have good warning systems; typically they show the approximate intensity and the predicted future track of any incoming storm. Forecasts are not always exact and hence frequently updated, but they are almost always good enough to provide a few days warning of major storms.
Once such a storm hits it is usually difficult or impossible to get out of the affected area; certainly neither planes nor boats can be used safely and other transport will be impeded. For most travellers, the best course is to heed weather warnings and leave before it hits. Otherwise, take shelter and wait it out, then be prepared to deal with chaos in the aftermath of the storm.
The classification systems in different regions vary, and scientists have proposed several alternatives, but the systems in current use are all similar. The table shows the Saffir-Simpson scale used by the US weather service. The wind speeds shown are for sustained winds; in any category there will be gusts of higher winds.
|Tropical depression||≤ 62||≤ 38||negligible|
|Category 5||≥ 252||≥ 157||catastrophic|
Categories 3 and higher are described as "major hurricanes" in the US, while categories 4 and 5 are called "super-typhoons" in the Pacific.
Category 5 hurricanes are rare in the Atlantic (Zone 1 on the map). For storms that make landfall as cat 5, the last one in the US was Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and, as of mid-2017, there have been only three anywhere in the region in the 21st century. In the Pacific, cat 5 storms are more common. The Philippines has had two in this decade; Typhoon Bopha hit Mindanao in 2012 and Haiyan devastated the Eastern Visayas in 2013.
Regardless of the expected severity of the storm, obey warnings and commands from local authorities regarding what to do and whether, when, where and how to evacuate. A misjudged attempt to ride out a storm is dangerous, perhaps fatal. In these situations local residents, local government and the professional forecasters will all likely have both more experience and better information than a traveller, so take their advice!
If you are unable to evacuate, you are strongly advised to seek shelter in a sturdy building and stay indoors until it is all over. Even search and rescue may not risk themselves rescuing anyone trapped until the storm passes. In tropical or subtropical regions where cyclones can frequently form, the buildings are often designed to withstand high winds; for example they may have strong shutters which can be closed when a storm is expected. Still, stay away from windows—the cyclone may pick up pieces of gravel or other projectiles which can do real damage even when buildings are designed for the wind. In a house, get underground or cover yourself in a bathtub with sheets or blankets so that you are not blown away. In a high-rise, an interior stairwell on a lower floor may be the safest place in the building. But of course, follow the advice of local authorities above all else.
Cyclones can cause serious power outages as objects are flying and trees are falling, taking down power lines and causing blackouts that may be quite widespread and in some cases can last for several days. Weather forecasts would usually include wind speeds especially if its threat is imminent; winds that are generally 35mph (50km/h, 14m/s) or above have the potential to take down some trees; the higher the speed and the larger the cyclone, the higher and more widespread the threat is. Even evacuation shelters are prone though the building may not be structurally damaged; a damaged power pole can cause outages within the electricity network that utilizes the pole.
In case of a power outage threat, stock up with non-perishable meals that you do not need to cool in the fridge and can last for days. Take a look at the article on camping food for suggestions. Have a cellphone with you and use it only if you need to call help; if you have a car, bring a car charger and fill up with enough fuel.
If power is off, turn off and unplug all devices that use the electricity grid as it may be damaged by a power surge when electricity comes back on (and some devices may get overheated if forgotten). Do not touch the affected power lines. It is really helpful to stay at the evacuation center (if one is set up near your neighborhood) or government service offices as they have the highest priority to have power back on; they also have some spare rations for emergency.
While tropical cyclones are the most common, there is also a special type of storm called an extratropical cyclone which can happen outside the tropical regions or during the fall and winter months; these can sometimes cause great damage when they hit areas that are not prepared for them. The main concern would be the wind that can still reach cyclone speed in addition to the rainstorm or snowstorm (blizzard).
There are also polar vortexes which form near the poles and sometimes move into populated areas. These do not have the extremely high winds of tropical cyclones — cold air lacks the energy for that — but they may still be very unpleasant with high winds and lots of snow.