|Tropical cyclones are low pressure systems that form in the tropics which, in the southern hemisphere, have well defined clockwise wind circulations with average surface winds exceeding gale force (34 kn). Short period wind gusts are often 40 per cent or more higher than the average wind speed. Severe tropical cyclones have surface winds greater than hurricane force (63 kn).
The circular eye of a tropical cyclone is an area characterised by light winds and often by clear skies. The eye is typically 20 nautical miles (nm) or so across but the eye of a cyclone can range from under 5 to over 50 nm wide.
The eye is surrounded by a dense ring of cloud known as the eye wall which is the area of heaviest winds and seas. Following the passage of the eye the winds shift to the opposite direction with equal force.
Tropical cyclones vary in both size and intensity. Small cyclones such as Chloe (April 1995) may be only 60 nm across whereas large storms, such as Orson (April 1989) and Joan (December 1975), may be up to 300 nm across. Both large and small cyclones can have equally devastating wind speeds near the centre.
Radar and satellite images often show that the eye wall clouds are the innermost coil of a series of spiral rain-band clouds. These bands may extend up to 300 nm from the eye wall and are often associated with thunderstorms and very strong wind squalls.
The terms "hurricane" and "typhoon" are regionally specific names for a strong "tropical cyclone". A tropical cyclone is the generic term for a non-frontal synoptic scale low-pressure system over tropical or sub-tropical waters with organized convection (i.e. thunderstorm activity) and definite cyclonic surface wind circulation (Holland 1993).
Tropical cyclones with maximum sustained surface winds of less than 17 m/s (34 kt, 39 mph) are called "tropical depressions" (This is not to be confused with the condition mid-latitude people get during a long, cold and grey winter wishing they could be closer to the equator ;-)). Once the tropical cyclone reaches winds of at least 17 m/s (34 kt, 39 mph) they are typically called a "tropical storm" and assigned a name. If winds reach 33 m/s (64 kt, 74 mph)), then they are called:
"hurricane" (the North Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Pacific Ocean east of the dateline, or the South Pacific Ocean east of 160E)
"typhoon" (the Northwest Pacific Ocean west of the dateline)
"severe tropical cyclone" (the Southwest Pacific Ocean west of 160E or Southeast Indian Ocean east of 90E)
"severe cyclonic storm" (the North Indian Ocean)
"tropical cyclone" (the Southwest Indian Ocean)
A sub-tropical cyclone is a low-pressure system existing in the tropical or subtropical latitudes (anywhere from the equator to about 50°N) that has characteristics of both tropical cyclones and mid-latitude (or extratropical) cyclones. Therefore, many of these cyclones exist in a weak to moderate horizontal temperature gradient region (like mid-latitude cyclones), but also receive much of their energy from convective clouds (like tropical cyclones). Often, these storms have a radius of maximum winds which is farther out (on the order of 100-200 km [60-125 miles] from the center) than what is observed for purely "tropical" systems. Additionally, the maximum sustained winds for sub-tropical cyclones have not been observed to be stronger than about 33 m/s (64 kts, 74 mph)).
Many times these subtropical storms transform into true tropical cyclones. A recent example is the Atlantic basin's Hurricane Florence in November 1994 which began as a subtropical cyclone before becoming fully tropical. Note there has been at least one occurrence of tropical cyclones transforming into a subtropical storm (e.g. Atlantic basin storm 8 in 1973).
An extra-tropical cyclone is a storm system that primarily gets its energy from the horizontal temperature contrasts that exist in the atmosphere. Extra-tropical cyclones (also known as mid-latitude or baroclinic storms) are low pressure systems with associated cold fronts, warm fronts, and occluded fronts.
Tropical cyclones, in contrast, typically have little to no temperature differences across the storm at the surface and their winds are derived from the release of energy due to cloud/rain formation from the warm moist air of the tropics
Structurally, tropical cyclones have their strongest winds near the earth's surface , while extra-tropical cyclones have their strongest winds near the tropopause - about 8 miles (12 km) up. These differences are due to the tropical cyclone being "warm-core" in the troposphere (below the tropopause) and the extra-tropical cyclone being "warm-core" in the stratosphere (above the tropopause) and "cold-core" in the troposphere. "Warm-core" refers to being relatively warmer than the environment at the same pressure surface ("pressure surfaces" are simply another way to measure height or altitude).
Often, a tropical cyclone will transform into an extra-tropical cyclone as it recurves poleward and to the east. Occassionally, an extra-tropical cyclone will lose its frontal features, develop convection near the center of the storm and transform into a full-fledged tropical cyclone. Such a process is most common in the North Atlantic and Northwest Pacific basins. The transformation of tropical cyclone into an extra-tropical cyclone (and vice versa) is currently one of the most challenging forecast problems (i.e., Jones et al. 2003).
The "eye" is a roughly circular area of comparatively light winds and fair weather found at the center of a severe tropical cyclone. Although the winds are calm at the axis of rotation, strong winds may extend well into the eye. There is little or no precipitation and sometimes blue sky or stars can be seen. The eye is the region of lowest surface pressure and warmest temperatures aloft - the eye temperature may be 10°C [18°F] warmer or more at an altitude of 12 km [8 mi] than the surrounding environment, but only 0-2°C [0-3°F] warmer at the surface (Hawkins and Rubsam 1968) in the tropical cyclone. Eyes range in size from 8 km [5 mi] to over 200 km [120 mi] across, but most are approximately 30-60 km [20-40 mi] in diameter (Weatherford and Gray 1988).
The eye is surrounded by the "eyewall", the roughly circular ring of deep convection which is the area of highest surface winds in the tropical cyclone. The eye is composed of air that is slowly sinking and the eyewall has a net upward flow as a result of many moderate - occasionally strong - updrafts and downdrafts. The eye's warm temperatures are due to compressional warming of of the subsiding air. Most soundings taken within the eye show a low-level layer which is relatively moist, with an inversion above - suggesting that the sinking in the eye typically does not reach the ocean surface, but instead only gets to around 1-3 km [ 1-2 mi] of the surface.
The exact mechanism by which the eye forms remains somewhat controversial. One idea suggests that the eye forms as a result of the downward directed pressure gradient associated with the weakening and radial spreading of the tangential wind field with height (Smith, 1980). Another hypothesis suggests that the eye is formed when latent heat release in the eyewall occurs, forcing subsidence in the storm's center (Shapiro and Willoughby, 1982). It is possible that these hypotheses are not inconsistent with one another. In either case, as the air subsides, it is compressed and warms relative to air at the same level outside the eye and thereby becomes locally buoyant. This upward buoyancy approximately balances the downward directed pressure gradient so that the actual subsidence is produced by a small residual force.
Another feature of tropical cyclones that probably plays a role in forming and maintaining the eye is the eyewall convection. Convection in tropical cyclones is organized into long, narrow rainbands which are oriented in the same direction as the horizontal wind. Because these bands seem to spiral into the center of a tropical cyclone, they are sometimes called "spiral bands". Along these bands, low-level convergence is a maximum, and therefore, upper-level divergence is most pronounced above. A direct circulation develops in which warm, moist air converges at the surface, ascends through these bands, diverges aloft, and descends on both sides of the bands. Subsidence is distributed over a wide area on the outside of the rainband but is concentrated in the small inside area. As the air subsides, adiabatic warming takes place, and the air dries. Because subsidence is concentrated on the inside of the band, the adiabatic warming is stronger inward from the band causing a sharp contrast in pressure falls across the band since warm air is lighter than cold air. Because of the pressure falls on the inside, the tangential winds around the tropical cyclone increase due to increased pressure gradient. Eventually, the band moves toward the center and encircles it and the eye and eyewall form (Willoughby 1979, 1990a, 1995).
Thus the cloud-free eye may be due to a combination of dynamically forced centrifuging of mass out of the eye into the eyewall and to a forced descent caused by the moist convection of the eyewall. This topic is certainly one that can use more research to ascertain which mechanism is primary.