Would you like to learn more about cyclones?

You’ve come to the right article. Not only will you learn all about what cyclones are and why they form, but I’ve included some extra fascinating facts that they don’t teach you in flying college.

  • A cyclone is a rotating mass of air with a low pressure core. Air moves from high to low pressure, therefore air is continuously “sucked” into the centre.
  • They spiral anti-clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern hemisphere. This difference is due to the Coriolis effect. When air is pulled into the centre of the cyclone from all directions it is deflected due to frictional forces with air rising from the earth’s surface. It’s easier to visualise this with a video:
YouTube Channel: What The Physics?!

  • The process by which cyclones are formed is called cyclogenesis. This can occur in three ways:
  1. Temperate Cyclone– Occurs when a quasi-stationary front between a cold air mass and a warm air mass gets disturbed. This disturbance can distort the front creating a “wave”, which can then lead to the formation of a low pressure region, and the consequent cyclonic rotation of the air. See diagram below.
  2. Tropical Cyclone– Not associated with fronts, instead they’re created when a concentrated region of convection is present, meaning warm moist air rising from the surface.
  3. Mesocyclones – Associated with thunderstorms and named ‘meso’ (meaning middle) because they’re thought to be formed by windshear within a cumulonimbus (Cb), which sets air spinning in an invisible tube-like shape. As air is rapidly drawn up into the Cb, this can tilt the “tube” creating a vertical spinning column of air inside the thunderstorm. This is how tornadoes are made.

Photo Source: Scioly.org, the life cycle of a temperate cyclone.

  • Cyclones can be found pretty much anywhere on the Earth, apart from within 5° of the equatorial belt. This is due to the lack of Coriolis effect near the equator.
  • They can be accompanied by various types of weather including thick cloud, fog, rain, snow, hail, strong wind and tornadoes.
  • There are fundamental differences between temperate and tropical cyclones, not just the way in which they’re formed. Here are a few:
    • Tropical cyclones are small and typically measure between 60 to 300 miles in diameter, whereas temperate cyclones cover much larger areas, measuring from 180 to 1,200 miles across.
    • Tropical cyclones usually occur at latitudes between 10° and 30° North and South of the equator, and temperate cyclones are found from 35° to 65°.
    • Tropical cyclones form over water and dissipate upon reaching land, whereas temperate cyclones can form over both land and water.
  • The antithesis of cyclones are anti-cyclones, which have an opposite airflow i.e. the air spirals outwards. They are not as strong as cyclones and usually produce no precipitation.
  • A ‘bomb’ cyclone or, how it’s officially titled explosive cyclogenesis, is classed as a temperate cyclone where the core pressure drops 24 millibars or more, in 24 hours or less. The strongest ‘bomb’ cyclone on record was the Braer Storm, which happened in January 1993. It’s central pressure dropped to just 914 mb and it bombarded the UK with rain, gusts of wind and blizzards.
  • The conditions thought to lead to the development of a tropical cyclone are:
    • Ocean/sea temperature warmer than 27°C.
    • Atmospheric instability.
    • Light surface wind and a little vertical wind shear with height.
    • High humidity in the lower and middle layers of the troposphere.
    • A trigger action.

Photo Source: Wiki commons, shows the tracks of all tropical cyclones which formed worldwide from 1985 to 2005.

  • Tropical cyclones are called different names depending on where in the world you are. In the East Pacific and Atlantic basin they’re called Hurricanes, in the West Pacific and China sea they’re called Typhoons, and the rest of the world they’re known as Cyclones. They are most likely to be found in the Typhoon area of the North West Pacific.
  • Cyclones have been detected on other planets, including Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, usually at the polar regions.
Photo Source: NASA, this image shows Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). The oval features are cyclones, up to 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) in diameter.
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