Thunderstorm Versus Tornado Versus Hurricane: Comparing Storms

Which is worse?

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, and differentiating between them can be confusing since they all contain strong winds and sometimes happen together.

However, they each have some distinct characteristics. For example, hurricanes usually only occur in seven designated basins throughout the world.

You might be wondering, which of these severe weather occurrences is the worst? Making side-by-side comparisons can give you a better understanding, but first, look at how to define each.

Thunderstorms

A thunderstorm is produced by a cumulonimbus cloud, or thunderhead, that includes rain showers, lightning, and thunder.

They start 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 it 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 of those collisions happen, the big buildup of charge discharges, creating lightning.

Thunderstorms are most hazardous when rain decreases visibility, hail falls, lightning strikes or tornadoes develop.

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.

Tornadoes are dangerous—even deadly—because of their high winds and subsequent flying debris.

Hurricanes

A hurricane is a swirling, low-pressure system that develops over the tropics with sustained winds that have reached at least 74 miles per hour.

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 there. Because air tends to move from high to low pressure, moist air from surrounding areas flows inward toward the low-pressure spot, creating winds. This air is warmed by the ocean's heat and the heat released from condensation, so it rises. This starts a process of warm air rising and forming clouds and surrounding air swirling in to take its place. Before long, you have a system of clouds and winds that 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 dangerous when there is a big storm surge, which is a wave of seawater that floods communities. Some surges can reach depths of 20 feet and sweep away homes, cars, and even 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
SeasonAny time, mostly spring or summerAny time, mostly spring or fallJune 1 to November 30, mostly mid-August to mid-October
Time of DayAny time, mostly afternoons or eveningsAny time, mostly from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.Any time
LocationWorldwideWorldwideWorldwide, but within the seven basins
DurationSeveral minutes to more than an hour (average 30 minutes)Several seconds to more than an hour (average 10 minutes or less)Several hours to up to three weeks (average 12 days)
Storm SpeedRanges from nearly stationary to 50 miles per hour or moreRanges from nearly stationary to 70 miles per hour
(average 30 miles per hour)
Ranges from nearly stationary to 30 miles per hour
(average less than 20 miles per hour)
Storm SizeAverage 15-mile diameterRanges from 10 yards to 2.6 miles wide (average 50 yards)Ranges from 100 to 900 miles in diameter
(average 300 miles diameter)
Storm Strength

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

  • Winds of 58+ miles per hour
  • Hail of one 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