A cyclone that eventually reaches hurricane intensity first passes through two intermediate stages known as tropical depression and tropical storm. Hurricanes start over the oceans as a collection of storms in the tropics. The deepening low-pressure center takes in moist air and thermal energy from the ocean surface, convection lifts the air, and high pressure higher in the atmosphere pushes it outward. Rotation of the wind currents tends to spin the clouds into a tight curl; as the winds reach gale force, the depression becomes a tropical storm. The mature hurricane is nearly circularly symmetrical, and its influence often extends over an area 500 mi (805 km) in diameter.
As a result of the extremely low central pressure (often around 28.35 in./960 millibars but sometimes considerably lower, with a record 25.69 in./870 millibars registered in a 1979 NW Pacific typhoon) surface air spirals inward cyclonically (counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere), converging on a circle of about 20 mi (30 km) diameter that surrounds the hurricane's "eye." The circumference of this circle defines the so-called eye wall, where the inward-spiraling, moisture-laden air is forced aloft, causing condensation and the concomitant release of latent heat; after reaching altitudes of tens of thousands of feet above the surface, this air is finally expelled toward the storm's periphery and eventually creates the spiral bands of clouds easily identifiable in satellite photographs.
The upward velocity of the air and subsequent condensation make the eye wall the region of heaviest precipitation and highest clouds. Because the outward increase in pressure is greatest there, the eye wall is also the region of maximum wind speed. By contrast, the hurricane eye is almost calm, experiences little or no precipitation, and is often exposed to a clear sky. Temperatures in the eye are 10°F to 15°F (5°C–8°C) warmer than those of the surrounding air as a result of sinking currents at the hurricane's core.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.