Which Is Worse, Thunderstorms, Tornadoes, or Hurricanes?

Stormy night over Byron Bay
  Enrique Díaz / 7cero / Getty Images

When it comes to severe weather, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes are regarded as nature's most violent storms. All of these types of weather systems can occur throughout all four corners of the globe. 

You might be wondering, which ranks the worst?

Differentiating between the three can be confusing since they all contain strong winds and sometimes happen together. However, they each have some distinct differences.

For example, hurricanes usually only occur in seven designated basins throughout the world. 

Making side-by-side comparisons can give you a better scope of understanding. But first, look at how to define each.

Thunderstorms

A thunderstorm is a storm that is produced by a cumulonimbus cloud, or thunderhead, that includes rain showers, lightning, and thunder. Thunderstorms are most hazardous when rain decreases visibility, hail falls, lightning strikes or tornadoes develop.

A thunderstorm starts when the sun heats the earth's surface and warms the layer of air above it. This warmed air rises and transfers heat to the upper levels of the atmosphere. As the air travels upward, it cools, and the water vapor contained within the air condenses to form liquid cloud droplets. As air continually travels aloft in this way, the cloud grows upward in the atmosphere, eventually reaching altitudes where the temperature is below freezing.

Some of the cloud droplets freeze into ice particles, while others remain "supercooled." When these collide, they pick up electric charges from one another. When enough collisions happen the big build up of charge discharges creating what we call lightning.

Tornadoes

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that extends down from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground.

When wind near the earth's surface blows at one speed, and wind above that blows at a much faster speed, the air between them whips around into a horizontal rotating column. If this column gets caught in the thunderstorm updraft, its winds tighten, speed up, and tilt vertically, creating a funnel cloud. These can get deadly if you get caught up in a funnel or you get struck by flying debris.

Hurricanes

A hurricane is a swirling low-pressure system that develops over the tropics that has sustained winds that have reached 74 miles per hour or more.

Warm, moist air near the ocean's surface rises upward, cools, and condenses, forming clouds. With less air than before at the surface, the pressure drops at the surface. Because air tends to move from high to low pressure, moist air from surrounding areas flows inward towards the low-pressure spot, creating winds. This air is warmed by the ocean's heat and the heat released from condensation, and also rises. It starts a process of warm air rising and forming clouds and then surrounding air swirling in to take its place. Before long, you have a system of clouds and winds which begins to rotate as a result of the Coriolis effect, a type of force that causes rotational or cyclonic weather systems.

Hurricanes are the most deadly when there is a big storm surge, which is a wave of seawater flooding communities. Some surges can reach depths of 20 feet and sweep away homes, cars, and people.

 ThunderstormsTornadoesHurricanes
ScaleLocal LocalLarge (synoptic)
Elements
  • Moisture
  • Unstable Air
  • Lift
  • Ocean temperatures of 80 degrees or warmer extending from the surface down to 150 feet
  • Moisture in the lower and middle atmosphere
  • Low wind shear
  • A pre-existing disturbance
  • A distance of 300 or more miles from the equator
SeasonAnytime, mostly spring or summerAnytime, mostly spring or fallJune 1 to November 30, mostly mid-August to mid-October
Time of DayAnytime, mostly afternoons or eveningsAnytime, mostly 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.Anytime
LocationWorldwideWorldwideWorldwide, but within seven basins
DurationSeveral minutes to more than an hour (30 minutes, average)Several seconds to more than an hour (10 minutes or less, average)Several hours to up to three weeks (12 days, average)
Storm speedRanges from nearly stationary to 50 miles per hour or moreRanges from nearly stationary to 70 miles per hour
(30 miles per hour, average)
Ranges from nearly stationary to 30 miles per hour
(less than 20 miles per hour, average)
Storm size15-mile diameter, averageRanges from 10 yeards to 2.6 miles wide (50 yards, average)Ranges from 100 to 900 miles in diameter
(300 miles diameter, average)
Storm strength

Severe or non-severe. Severe storms have one or more of the following conditions:

  • Winds of 58+ mph
  • Hail 1 inch or greater in diameter
  • Tornadoes

The Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF scale) rates tornado strength based on the damage that has occurred.

  • EF 0
  • EF 1
  • EF 2
  • EF 3
  • EF 4
  • EF 5

 The Saffir-Simpson Scale classifies cyclone strength based on the intensity of sustained wind speeds.

  • Tropical Depression
  • Tropical Cyclone
  • Category 1
  • Category 2
  • Category 3
  • Category 4
  • Category 5
HazardsLightning, hail, strong winds, flash flooding, tornadoesHigh winds, flying debris, large hailHigh winds, storm surge, inland flooding, tornadoes
Life Cycle
  • Developing stage
  • Mature stage
  • Dissipating stage
  • Developing/ Organizing stage
  • Mature stage
  • Decaying/Shrinking/ 
    "Rope" stage
  • Tropical Disturbance
  • Tropical Depression
  • Tropical Storm
  • Hurricane
  • Extra-tropical cyclone