Diagram of a Northern hemisphere hurricane
Tropical cyclones are areas of relatively low pressure in the troposphere, with the largest pressure perturbations occurring at low altitudes near the surface. On Earth, the pressures recorded at the centers of tropical cyclones are among the lowest ever observed at sea level. The environment near the center of tropical cyclones is warmer than the surroundings at all altitudes, thus they are characterized as "warm core" systems.
The near-surface wind field of a tropical cyclone is characterized by air rotating rapidly around a center of circulation while also flowing radially inwards. At the outer edge of the storm, air may be nearly calm; however, due to the Earth's rotation, the air has non-zero absolute angular momentum. As air flows radially inward, it begins to rotate cyclonically (counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere) to conserve angular momentum. At an inner radius, air begins to ascend to the top of the troposphere. This radius is typically coincident with the inner radius of the eyewall, and has the strongest near-surface winds of the storm; consequently, it is known as the radius of maximum winds. Once aloft, air flows away from the storm's center, producing a shield of cirrus clouds.
The previously mentioned processes result in a nearly axisymmetric wind field: Wind speeds are low at the center, increase rapidly moving outwards to the radius of maximum winds, and then decay more gradually with radius to large radii. However, the wind field often exhibits additional spatial and temporal variability due to the effects of localized processes, such as thunderstorm activity and horizontal flow instabilities. In the vertical direction, winds are strongest near the surface and decay with height within the troposphere.
Eye and center
At the center of a mature tropical cyclone, air sinks rather than rises. For a sufficiently strong storm, air may sink over a layer deep enough to suppress cloud formation, thereby creating a clear "eye". Weather in the eye is normally calm and free of clouds, although the sea may be extremely violent. The eye is normally circular and is typically 30–65 km (19–40 mi) in diameter, though eyes as small as 3 km (1.9 mi) and as large as 370 km (230 mi) have been observed.
The cloudy outer edge of the eye is called the "eyewall". The eyewall typically expands outward with height, resembling an arena football stadium; this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the "stadium effect". The eyewall is where the greatest wind speeds are found, air rises most rapidly, clouds reach their highest altitude, and precipitation is the heaviest. The heaviest wind damage occurs where a tropical cyclone's eyewall passes over land.
In a weaker storm, the eye may be obscured by the central dense overcast, which is the upper-level cirrus shield that is associated with a concentrated area of strong thunderstorm activity near the center of a tropical cyclone.
The eyewall may vary over time in the form of eyewall replacement cycles, particularly in intense tropical cyclones. Outer rainbands can organize into an outer ring of thunderstorms that slowly moves inward, which is believed to rob the primary eyewall of moisture and angular momentum. When the primary eyewall weakens, the tropical cyclone weakens temporarily. The outer eyewall eventually replaces the primary one at the end of the cycle, at which time the storm may return to its original intensity.
On occasion, tropical cyclones may undergo a process known as rapid intensification, a period in which the maximum sustained winds of a tropical cyclone increase by 30 knots within 24 hours. For rapid intensification to occur, several conditions must be in place. Water temperatures must be extremely high (near or above 30 °C, 86 °F), and water of this temperature must be sufficiently deep such that waves do not upwell cooler waters to the surface. Wind shear must be low; when wind shear is high, the convection and circulation in the cyclone will be disrupted. Usually, an anticyclone in the upper layers of the troposphere above the storm must be present as well—for extremely low surface pressures to develop, air must be rising very rapidly in the eyewall of the storm, and an upper-level anticyclone helps channel this air away from the cyclone efficiently.
|Size descriptions of tropical cyclones
|Less than 2 degrees latitude
|2 to 3 degrees of latitude
|3 to 6 degrees of latitude
|6 to 8 degrees of latitude
|Over 8 degrees of latitude
There are a variety of metrics commonly used to measure storm size. The most common metrics include the radius of maximum wind, the radius of 34-knot wind (i.e. gale force), the radius of outermost closed isobar (ROCI), and the radius of vanishing wind. An additional metric is the radius at which the cyclone's relative vorticity field decreases to 1×10−5 s−1.
On Earth, tropical cyclones span a large range of sizes, from 100–2,000 kilometres (62–1,243 mi) as measured by the radius of vanishing wind. They are largest on average in the northwest Pacific Ocean basin and smallest in the northeastern Pacific Ocean basin. If the radius of outermost closed isobar is less than two degrees of latitude (222 km (138 mi)), then the cyclone is "very small" or a "midget". A radius of 3–6 latitude degrees (333–670 km (207–416 mi)) is considered "average sized". "Very large" tropical cyclones have a radius of greater than 8 degrees (888 km (552 mi)). Observations indicate that size is only weakly correlated to variables such as storm intensity (i.e. maximum wind speed), radius of maximum wind, latitude, and maximum potential intensity.
Size plays an important role in modulating damage caused by a storm. All else equal, a larger storm will impact a larger area for a longer period of time. Additionally, a larger near-surface wind field can generate higher storm surge due to the combination of longer wind fetch, longer duration, and enhanced wave setup.
The upper circulation of strong hurricanes extends into the tropopause of the atmosphere, which at low latitudes is 15,000–18,000 metres (50,000–60,000 ft).