What is in a Name: Subtropical Versus Tropical Storm?

May 6, 2012; 11:15 AM ET
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There are meteorological differences between a tropical and subtropical storm. However, both can threaten lives and property in the same way.

The major difference between the two systems from a public standpoint is that subtropical storms typically do not become as intense as tropical storms or hurricanes.

That being said, both can bring flooding rain, damaging winds, beach erosion, rough seas, etc.

Interestingly, subtropical storms often cover a much larger area than the more compact tropical storms and hurricanes.

As a result, damaging winds and flooding from a subtropical storm can affect a larger area than that from a hurricane.

The difference between the two has to do with the environment in which the storms were born.

In the tropical storm, waters are very warm and the budding system has a good relationship with the upper atmosphere that allows it to "breathe" or be well ventilated, like a jet engine.


This satellite photo of Hurricane Igor was taken on Sept. 13, 2010.

This well-tuned setup allows the storm to become compact and spin rapidly, like a figure skater pulling his or her arms in closer to the body.

In the case of the subtropical storm, waters are relatively lukewarm, dry air is often drawn in and the storm does not have the upper atmosphere connection.

As a result, the subtropical storm compensates for these deficiencies by becoming rather large and asymmetrical.


This satellite photo was taken Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010, focusing on the system just north of Hispaniola.

However, while subtropical storms may be the "clunker" of their tropical streamlined cousins and may not catch as many looks, they can kill and bring destruction given the right conditions.

Sometimes, along the Atlantic coast of the U.S., these subtropical storms gain extra spin from a large high pressure system to the north.

The result can be a system as strong or stronger than the most powerful nor'easter of a nasty winter, bringing all the bells and whistles.

Related to the Story:

2010 Hurricane Center

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