In strong tropical cyclones, the eye is characterized by light winds and clear skies, surrounded on all sides by a towering, symmetric eyewall. In weaker tropical cyclones, the eye is less well-defined, and can be covered by the central dense overcast, which is an area of high, thick clouds which show up brightly on satellite imagery. Weaker or disorganized storms may also feature an eyewall which does not completely encircle the eye, or have an eye which features heavy rain. In all storms, however, the eye is the location of the storm's minimum barometric pressure: the area where the atmospheric pressure at sea level is the lowest.
A typical tropical cyclone will have an eye approximately 30–65 km (20–40 mi) across, usually situated at the geometric center of the storm. The eye may be clear or have spotty low clouds (a clear eye), it may be filled with low- and mid-level clouds (a filled eye), or it may be obscured by the central dense overcast. There is, however, very little wind and rain, especially near the center. This is in stark contrast to conditions in the eyewall, which contains the storm's strongest winds. Due to the mechanics of a tropical cyclone, the eye and the air directly above it are warmer than their surroundings.
While normally quite symmetric, eyes can be oblong and irregular, especially in weakening storms. A large ragged eye is a non-circular eye which appears fragmented, and is an indicator of a weak or weakening tropical cyclone. An open eye is an eye which can be circular, but the eyewall does not completely encircle the eye, also indicating a weakening, moisture-deprived cyclone. Both of these observations are used to estimate the intensity of tropical cyclones via Dvorak analysis. Eyewalls are typically circular; however, distinctly polygonal shapes ranging from triangles to hexagons occasionally occur.
While typical mature storms have eyes that are a few dozen miles across, rapidly intensifying storms can develop an extremely small, clear, and circular eye, sometimes referred to as a pinhole eye. Storms with pinhole eyes are prone to large fluctuations in intensity, and provide difficulties and frustrations for forecasters.
Small eyes—those less than 10 nmi (19 km, 12 mi) across—often trigger eyewall replacement cycles, where a new eyewall begins to form outside the original eyewall. This can take place anywhere from ten to a few hundred miles (fifteen to hundreds of kilometers) outside the inner eye. The storm then develops two concentric eyewalls, or an "eye within an eye". In most cases, the outer eyewall begins to contract soon after its formation, which chokes off the inner eye and leaves a much larger but more stable eye. While the replacement cycle tends to weaken storms as it occurs, the new eyewall can contract fairly quickly after the old eyewall dissipates, allowing the storm to re-strengthen. This may trigger another cycle of eyewall replacement.
Eyes can range in size from 320 km (200 miles) (Typhoon Carmen) to a mere 3 km (2 mi) (Hurricane Wilma) across. While it is uncommon for storms with large eyes to become very intense, it does occur, especially in annular hurricanes. Hurricane Isabel was the eleventh most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, and sustained a large, 65–80 km (40–50 mi)-wide eye for a period of several days.
Tropical cyclones typically form from large, disorganized areas of disturbed weather in tropical regions. As more thunderstorms form and gather, the storm develops rainbands which start rotating around a common center. As the storm gains strength, a ring of stronger convection forms at a certain distance from the rotational center of the developing storm. Since stronger thunderstorms and heavier rain mark areas of stronger updrafts, the barometric pressure at the surface begins to drop, and air begins to build up in the upper levels of the cyclone. This results in the formation of an upper level anticyclone, or an area of high atmospheric pressure above the central dense overcast. Consequentially, most of this built up air flows outward anticyclonically above the tropical cyclone. Outside the forming eye, the anticyclone at the upper levels of the atmosphere enhances the flow towards the center of the cyclone, pushing air towards the eyewall and causing a positive feedback loop.
However, a small portion of the built-up air, instead of flowing outward, flows inward towards the center of the storm. This causes air pressure to build even further, to the point where the weight of the air counteracts the strength of the updrafts in the center of the storm. Air begins to descend in the center of the storm, creating a mostly rain-free area; a newly-formed eye.
There are many aspects of this process which remain a mystery. Scientists do not know why a ring of convection forms around the center of circulation instead of on top of it, or why the upper-level anticyclone only ejects a portion of the excess air above the storm. Hundreds of theories exist as to the exact process by which the eye forms: all that is known for sure is that the eye is necessary for tropical cyclones to achieve high wind speeds.
The formation of an eye is almost always an indicator of increasing tropical cyclone organisation and strength. Because of this, forecasters watch developing storms closely for signs of eye formation.
For storms with a clear eye, detection of the eye is as simple as looking at pictures from a weather satellite. However, for storms with a filled eye, or an eye completely covered by the central dense overcast, other detection methods must be used. Observations from ships and Hurricane Hunters can pinpoint an eye visually, by looking for a drop in wind speed or lack of rainfall in the storm's center. In the United States, South Korea, and a few other countries, a network of NEXRAD Doppler weather radar stations can detect eyes near the coast. Weather satellites also carry equipment for measuring atmospheric water vapor and cloud temperatures, which can be used to spot a forming eye. In addition, scientists have recently discovered that the amount of ozone in the eye is much higher than the amount in the eyewall, due to air sinking from the ozone-rich stratosphere. Instruments sensitive to ozone perform measurements, which are used to observe rising and sinking columns of air, and provide indication of the formation of an eye, even before satellite imagery can determine its formation.
The discovery of this process was partially responsible for the end of the U.S. government's hurricane modification experiment Project Stormfury. This project set out to seed clouds outside the eyewall, causing a new eyewall to form and weakening the storm. When it was discovered that this was a natural process due to hurricane dynamics, the project was quickly abandoned.
Almost every intense hurricane undergoes at least one of these cycles during its existence. Hurricane Allen in 1980 went through repeated eyewall replacement cycles, fluctuating between Category 5 and Category 3 status on the Saffir-Simpson Scale several times. Hurricane Juliette was a rare documented case of triple eyewalls.
Eyewall mesovortices often exhibit unusual behavior in tropical cyclones. They usually rotate around the low pressure center, but sometimes they remain stationary. Eyewall mesovortices have even been documented to cross the eye of a storm. These phenomena have been documented observationally, experimentally, and theoretically.
Eyewall mesovortices are a significant factor in the formation of tornadoes after tropical cyclone landfall. Mesovortices can spawn rotation in individual thunderstorms (a mesocyclone), which leads to tornadic activity. At landfall, friction is generated between the circulation of the tropical cyclone and land. This can allow the mesovortices to descend to the surface, causing large outbreaks of tornadoes.
The stadium effect is a phenomenon observed in strong tropical cyclones. It is a fairly common event, where the clouds of the eyewall curve outward from the surface with height. This gives the eye an appearance resembling an open dome from the air, akin to a sports stadium. An eye is always larger at the top of the storm, and smallest at the bottom of the storm because the rising air in the eyewall follows isolines of equal angular momentum, which also slope outward with height. This phenomenon refers to the characteristics of tropical cyclones with very small eyes, where the sloping phenomenon is much more pronounced.
An eye-like structure is often found in intensifying tropical cyclones. Similar to the eye seen in hurricanes or typhoons, it is a circular area at the circulation center of the storm in which convection is absent. These eye-like features are most normally found in intensifying tropical storms and hurricanes of Category 1 strength on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. For example, an eye-like feature was found in Hurricane Beta when the storm had maximum wind speeds of 50 mph. These eye-like features are typically not visible on visible wavelengths or infrared wavelengths from space, however, they are easily seen on microwave satellite imagery. The development of this feature at mid level is similar to the formation of the complete eye but its position might be different due to the vertical wind shear
A common mistake, especially in areas where hurricanes are uncommon, is for residents to wander outside to inspect the damage while the eye passes over, thinking the storm is over. They are then caught completely by surprise by the violent winds in the opposite eyewall. The National Weather Service strongly discourages leaving shelter while the eye passes over.
Extratropical storms are areas of low pressure which exist at the boundary of different air masses. Almost all storms found at mid-latitudes are extratropical in nature, including classic North American nor'easters and European windstorms. The most severe of these can have a clear "eye" at the site of lowest barometric pressure, though it is usually surrounded by lower, non-convective clouds and is found near the back end of the storm.