There have already been storms like Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Atlantic, although the jury could be out for months on the actual power of Haiyan.
"If there were instruments in its path, they didn't live through it," said Brian McNoldy, a storm researcher at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. "We don't know exactly how strong the storm was, but it appears to be slightly stronger and slightly larger than Hurricane Andrew."
That would place it among the world's most powerful tropical cyclones, as only Camille (1969), Katrina (2005) and an unnamed storm that hit the Florida Keys in 1935 are known to have been more powerful than Andrew (1992), according statistics from the National Hurricane Center.
"Everything right now is based on satellite estimates," confirmed Dennis Feltgen of the U.S.National Hurricane Center. He agrees that Haiyan is in the same league as Camille, Andrew and Katrina. Haiyan's similarity to Andrew is stronger because, unlike the sprawling Katrina, it was a compact storm.
Hurricane Andrew made landfall in the United States on Aug. 24, 1992, with winds near 150 knots (175 mph). That put it, like Haiyan, at Category 5 on the Saffir Simpson Hurricane Intensity Scale. Also like Haiyan -- at least what is known to date -- it was winds that made Andrew deadly: flattening whole neighborhoods and destroying 90 percent of the mobile homes in the storm's path. Andrew caused $26.5 billion in damages, second only to Katrina in destruction and costs. One of the positive results of Andrew was a push for better building codes.
It's likely, said McNoldy, that poor construction of many buildings in the Philippines will also make it hard to glean information from the destruction about Haiyan's winds. That's because it takes less wind to destroy a weak building, and so there is no more clues about how much higher the winds went.
As for the different name -- typhoon vs. hurricane -- they are the same kind of storm, just in different places, explained Feltgen. In the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific, the big storms are called hurricanes. The same kind of storm in the Northwest Pacific is called a typhoon and in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific it's called a cyclone. All of these oceans have the capacity for creating big storms, with the Pacific having the largest capacity, since it's a larger ocean.
"It has a large space of deep warm ocean and more space for them to track," McNoldy said. Once Pacific tropical storms are born, they have lot more ocean to get lost in, however.
"In the east Pacific there is not a lot of real estate out there except for maybe Hawaii," said Feltgen. "And when they cross the International Date Line they are called typhoons."
But all of this is beside the point at the moment, said Feltgen, as the focus of scientists right now is the same as that of everyone else: getting help to those people in desperate need in the most affected areas.