Hurricanes: Does Size Really Matter?

Hurricane Irene


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Hurricane Irene was huge! But are the big storms more harmful? You might be surprised to find the answer.

Experts described the storm as Category 3 with winds reaching 120 mph (195 kph if you speak metric) and atmospheric pressure of 942 mbar (really intense).

However, the first impression Irene makes when you looked at its pictures is—Yikes! It’s big!

Satellite pictures show that it reached from Cuba to the Carolinas. When the space station in orbit was taking pictures, it took six minutes to cross it. It was over 600 miles wide, a diameter one-third the length of the entire U.S. eastern seaboard.

Irene stretched from Cuba to the Carolinas! SOURCE: NASA

It was giant, but records show that it was not even half as large as the largest hurricane. The biggest tropical storm was Super Typhoon Tip, which had a diameter of 1,380, which is half as large as the continental United States. That storm, the largest and most intense on record, slammed Japan in October 1979. It wrecked a lot of ships, killed a lot of people and, oddly enough, set fire to a US Marine base.

Yet when we concentrate on the giants, don’t ignore the little guys. Hurricanes can be huge, but they also can be quite small. Indeed, one cyclone, Tropical Storm Marco in 2008, was only 11.5 miles across! It was born in Central America, trekked across the Yucatan Peninsula, swirled in the Gulf of Mexico and finally crashed into Mexico near Veracruz. It was too tiny to do much damage, but the little beast  caused 10 foot high floods.

Hurricanes come in all sizes. SOURCE: NOAA

Small doesn’t mean harmless however. Before Marco, the smallest known tropical storm was Cyclone Tracy. She was only 30 miles across but had the intensity of a Category 3 hurricane.  She hit  Darwin,  Australia, on Christmas Eve, 1974. The little Grinch wrecked 70% of the cities buildings, leaving 41,000 people homeless. Newspapers called the tiny hurricane “a disaster of the first magnitude … without parallel in Australia's history.”

In short, size doesn’t really matter. Like real estate, the key to hurricanes is location, location, location. If the world’s largest hurricane wanders through the ocean waters, all it is going to do is scare ships and churn up fish. If a tiny storm visits a city—look out!

About This Blog

Evelyn Browning Garriss doesn't just blog about the weather forecast; she provides insight on WHY extreme weather is happening--and a heads up on weather to watch out for. A historical climatologist, Evelyn blogs about weather history, interesting facts about the weather, and upcoming climate events that affect your life--from farming to your grocery bill. Every week, we look forward to another great weather column from Evelyn. We encourage our weather watchers to post their comments and questions--and tell us what they think!


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Tropical Storm Lee

Hurricane Irene didn't do much damage where I live, Binghamton, NY, but Tropical Storm Lee which I heard nothing about had to stall right over our area and dumped about 10 inches of rain and leaving MANY people homeless. Sorry to anyone who was affected by the flood.

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