cyclone, atmospheric pressure distribution in which there is a low central pressure relative to the surrounding pressure. The resulting pressure gradient, combined with the Coriolis effect, causes air to circulate about the core of lowest pressure in a counterclockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere and in a clockwise direction in the Southern Hemisphere. Near the surface of the earth, the frictional drag on the air moving over land or water causes it to spiral gradually inward toward lower pressures. This inward movement of air is compensated for by rising currents near the center, which are cooled by expansion when they reach the lower pressures of higher altitudes. The cooling, in turn, greatly increases the relative humidity of the air, so that "lows" are generally characterized by cloudiness and high humidity; they are thus often referred to simply as storms.

According to the theory first proposed by the Norwegian physicist Vilhelm Bjerknes, the extratropical, or middle-latitude, cyclone originates as a wave, or perturbation, in the polar front separating the cold polar easterly winds from the warmer prevailing winds farther toward the equator. This wave, once induced by the opposing air currents, is accentuated by the rotational sense of the circulation, which pumps warm, moist air toward the pole around the eastern side of the cyclone center and cold, dry air toward the equator to the west of the center. Such wave cyclones often intensify, expanding the radius of the affected area to 500 mi (805 km) or more, while reducing atmospheric pressure, especially toward the center.

Tropical cyclones, formed over warm tropical oceans, are not associated with fronts, as are the middle-latitude wave cyclones, nor are they as large as the latter. A tropical cyclone that has matured to a severe intensity is called a hurricane when it occurs in the Atlantic Ocean or adjacent seas, a typhoon when it occurs in the Pacific Ocean or adjacent seas, or simply a cyclone or tropical cyclone when it occurs in the Indian Ocean region.

Cyclones in middle latitudes move generally from west to east along with the prevailing winds and cover 500 to 1,000 mi (800–1,610 km) each day; tropical cyclones usually move toward the west with the flow of the trade winds during their formative stages, then curve toward the poles around subtropical anticyclones.

See D. Longshore, Encyclopedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones (1998).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Weather and Climate: Terms and Concepts


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