Super Typhoon, Hurricane: What's the Difference?

Super Typhoon, Hurricane: What's the Difference?

Super Typhoon Mangkhut threatens a swath of Southeast Asia. Here’s how it differs from Atlantic hurricanes like Florence.


5 - 12


Earth Science, Meteorology


Super Typhoon Mangkhut Approaching the Philippines

Super Typhoon Mangkhut approaches the eastern coastline of the Philippines on September 12, 2018. The image was taken by NASA's Suomi NPP satellite.

Image by Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory
Super Typhoon Mangkhut approaches the eastern coastline of the Philippines on September 12, 2018. The image was taken by NASA's Suomi NPP satellite.
Selected text level

This article was originally published August 8, 2019

A giant hurricane is about to hit the United States East Coast. It is called Hurricane Florence. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, areas of Southeast Asia are bracing for the same kind of disaster. It is another storm called Super Typhoon Mangkhut. Many countries in Southeast Asia are now bracing for the enormous damage the storm will cause.

Mangkhut threatens the coasts of Hong Kong and Macau where millions of people live. Its powerful rains have already caused flooding in Guam. The typhoon is likely to strengthen in the coming hours and strike the Philippines farther along its path.

The Name Depends on Where the Storm Is

Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones are actually different names for the same type of storm. These are powerful storms with heavy winds and rains. The storm's name comes from its location on the globe.

Storms that start near either coast of the United States are called hurricanes. The storms that rage across Southeast Asia are called typhoons.

The names also come from different languages. Hurricanes are named after Hurrican, a Caribbean god of evil. The word "typhoon" has roots in Persian, Arabic, and Chinese words that referred to strong storms. It has also been handed down through other languages, from Portuguese to Greek.

Hurricanes are measured and classified by the speed of their wind and ability to cause damage. Scientists measure hurricanes on a scale from 1 to 5. Typhoons are classified differently by different countries. The weather agency of Hong Kong classifies typhoons as: typhoon, severe typhoon, and super typhoon.

If Super Typhoon Mangkhut were in the Atlantic Ocean, it would be a Category 5 hurricane. The storm's winds are estimated at 253 kilometers (157 miles) per hour. These wind speeds are powerful enough to overturn a train.

Often, the wind itself isn't the most dangerous part. Storm surges are giant waves of water pushed onto land as the storm gets closer. Surges can cause coastal flooding and drown towns and buildings.

A Difference in Temperature Can Start a Storm

Which is more common, hurricanes or typhoons? Kerry Emanuel is a scientist who studies these types of storms. He explains that hurricanes get the most attention in the U.S. because they are close to home. However, they only account for about one of every 10 tropical storms. Typhoons are actually far more common.

There are very specific types of weather patterns that make a storm this powerful. These storms are most common in late summer because of water is typically warmer then. The great difference in temperature between the air and water starts the storm. Storm clouds with cool air begin to mix with warmer air on the surface of the ocean water. When the storm starts, there is usually little wind. All may seem calm.

Once a storm gets going, water evaporates into the air. This is what mostly fuels it. Warm ocean waters feed that evaporation, cooling the immediate area and sucking more heat to the center of the storm.

This sets up a cycle that keeps running until something stops it.

High winds can break up the storm. These winds slow it down by blasting it with dry air. These churning gusts also pull up cold water from deep in the ocean. This cool water causes less evaporation and robs the storm of power. Also, the storm's contact with the land slows it down. When a storm touches land, it no longer evaporates the large amounts of ocean water that gave the storm its energy.

These storms develop most often in late summer because of the warm water. In some warm parts of Asia, they can happen anytime.

Powerful Storms Could Become more Common

No matter what the storms are called, they all need the same things: storm clouds, surface ocean temperatures above 27 degrees Celsisus (80 degrees Fahrenheit), and very little difference in wind speeds from the surface to high in the sky.

Scientists like Emanuel are still trying to figure out exactly what triggers these storms. Emanuel is worried about the effects of climate change. Earth's warming air and water may make these powerful storms more common.

This article was originally published August 8, 2019.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Brian Clark Howard
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources