Cities can spawn more thunderstorms, study says

February 18, 2015, Northern Illinois University
Lightning over Atlanta. Credit: David Selby/Wikimedia Commons

Here's a potential jolt to urbanites: Some big cities, particularly those located in hot and humid environments, actually birth more thunderstorms than surrounding rural areas.

The conclusion is one of several fascinating findings from the first long-term, systematic assessment of the influence of use on thunderstorm development.

The researchers used an automated technique and radar data to pinpoint the locations of thunderstorm initiations, or births, over 17 years (1997–2013) in a southeast U.S. region that included Atlanta.

Nearly 26,000 initiation points were detected during 85 warm-season months, with comparisons made between the Atlanta metropolitan region and surrounding rural areas.

"Our research demonstrates that urbanization has led to more thunderstorm initiation events in Atlanta than would have occurred over natural vegetation," says Alex Haberlie, a Northern Illinois University Ph.D. student in geography and lead author of the study published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society.

"For any given day in our 17-year study, we found there was about a 5 percent greater chance that Atlanta would experience a thunderstorm compared to the similarly sized rural area," he said. "Per year, that amounts to two or three more thunderstorms of the pop-up variety. These originate over the city or downwind and are separate from large and more easily predicted weather events."

The study identified thunderstorm formation risk as being greatest in Atlanta and its suburbs in the late afternoon and early evening periods of July and August.

Further, the scientists found thunderstorm births were significantly higher on weekdays compared with weekend days, suggesting that increased pollution levels related to industry and commuting may play a role. (Rural areas showed no significant weekday-weekend differences.)

Haberlie says the increased thunderstorm risks illustrate human-induced climate change at the local scale.

"City planners, meteorologists and citizens who live in or near large urban areas should be aware of the increased risk," he says. "These storms can produce dangerous weather hazards, including lightning, hail, strong winds and flash floods, often with little or no warning."

The findings would likely hold up in similar cities that experience warm and humid weather, including Nashville and Birmingham, Haberlie says. But heat and humidity are not the only factors to take into consideration. In Chicago, for example, the city's effect on initiating storms could be muted by winds produced by Lake Michigan, which plays a large role in its localized weather.

The new study builds upon decades of previous research.

Since the 1960s, a number of studies have examined the relationship between increased precipitation and thunderstorm activity over and downwind of large cities. In 2012, a research team that included NIU's Walker Ashley, a professor of meteorology in the geography department, found that in comparison to rural areas, large cities in the Southeast had a much higher risk of experiencing heavy rainfalls associated with summertime thunderstorms.

Haberlie's research, which began as a master's degree thesis, took the work a step further asking: Is the city enhancing the initiation of thunderstorms?

"All thunderstorms have lifecycles—there are births, lives and deaths, but the birthing process is not well understood," says Ashley, a co-author on the research article along with Haberlie and NIU geography professor Thomas Pingel.

"This study presents the first evidence that urban areas birth or initiate thunderstorms more often than the surrounding rural areas on a climatological time scale," Ashley says.

The researchers say cities contribute to a number of processes that might lead to more thunderstorm births or storm enhancement.

Ashley says the mechanisms include:

  • The urban heat-island effect. A landscape of concrete, asphalt and densely packed buildings can enhance heat. Low pressure forms atop the with higher pressure in surrounding rural areas. The scenario might cause low-level atmospheric convergence, which forces air up into thunderstorms.
  • Localized areas of upward moving air resulting from increased surface roughness. A cityscape modifies wind direction and speed, which might lead to enhanced convergence and thunderstorm formation.
  • Urban pollution. The science isn't settled on this issue, but some researchers believe enhanced aerosol production caused by urban pollution can enrich thunderstorms. "We discovered that there may be an aerosol effect with initiation as well," Ashley says, "because we had greater storm initiation events during weekdays compared to weekend days."

Ashley says the contributions of the new research to the fields of meteorology and geographic information science are also particularly noteworthy.

"The research is the first to systematically and objectively apply 'big data' practices to extract thunderstorm initiation events from almost two decades of radar data," Ashley says. "It also is the first to characterize the climatological spatial distribution of thunderstorm initiation around a large urban area in different wind patterns, times of the day and days of the week."

Previous studies that examined thunderstorm initiation were limited by the requirement that researchers manually sift through radar images to identify qualifying events. At five-minute temporal resolutions, years of radar data can become unmanageable and tedious to analyze.

To address the issue, Haberlie developed a repeatable and scalable approach that automatically extracts particular meteorological events—in this case thunderstorm births— from sequences of weather radar images.

"The resulting framework will allow future studies to examine many more events and enjoy total control over the detection procedure, all while eliminating the bias inherent when subjectively identifying qualifying cases," Ashley says.

Explore further: World thunderstorm 'map' key to assessing climate change

More information: Haberlie, A. M., Ashley, W. S. and Pingel, T. J. (2015), The effect of urbanisation on the climatology of thunderstorm initiation. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc.. DOI: 10.1002/qj.2499

Related Stories

World thunderstorm 'map' key to assessing climate change

February 9, 2015

The Doomsday Clock, which measures the likelihood of global catastrophe, last week ticked a minute closer to "midnight"—- the apocalypse. The symbolic clock was set to 11:57 by a board of atomic scientists featuring 17 ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (4) Feb 19, 2015
This study should shed some light(ning) on the debate.


The pollution simply adds more ions to the atmosphere, which creates more storms just as in the desert.
3.3 / 5 (7) Feb 19, 2015
Your link isn't a study, it is an inaccurate news item.
1 / 5 (3) Feb 19, 2015
I should have called it an experiment, irregardless, it has shown to produce results as your article even admitted. The major crux of your article shows how "welcoming" and "open" some are to new and oft misunderstood techniques.
2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 19, 2015
"We have made progress, but for me it is far from claiming 'Yes we have done it,'" said Hartmut Grassl, former director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and a lead researcher who is helping to monitor the project."

Hardly a ringing endorsement for success. A Google search shows nothing more about this experiment after Jan. 2011 and Metro Systems hasn't up dated their web page since 2010.

Looking for conformation for your EU beliefs has led to a dead end.
not rated yet Feb 19, 2015
I think there is a vast amount of energy in the clouds if we could figure out how to harvest it.
Consider that it takes a large amount of energy to evaporate water, and when it condenses into rain that energy MUST be released. Presumably it is released as heat into the atmosphere. If we could capture that energy it could prove to be a great resource. Clouds are huge batteries.

Sorry if this is semi-OT, or if it sounds like a crank post. But think about the concept.
1 / 5 (3) Feb 20, 2015
"We have made progress, but for me it is far from claiming 'Yes we have done it,'" said Hartmut Grassl, former director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and a lead researcher who is helping to monitor the project."

Hardly a ringing endorsement for success. A Google search shows nothing more about this experiment after Jan. 2011 and Metro Systems hasn't up dated their web page since 2010.

Looking for conformation for your EU beliefs has led to a dead end.

Luckily people like you are ignored by the likes of the Wright Bros. and the Steve Jobs of the world. The successes at Kitty Hawk was progress, just because they didn't land on the Moon doesn't mean they were failures.

BTW, Meteo Systems was absorbed by Sindicatum Corp. shortly after that experiment. Ironically, Sindicatum's business plan is profiting from reducing AGW. Corporations have never bought up technology/innovation or patents and hidden it for their own purpose...Never.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.