Can cities affect thunderstorms?

Thunderstorms are nature's dramatic and dangerous fireworks. They can form in minutes and a line has the energy of hundreds of atomic bombs.

Not every thunderstorm is as destructive as last year's derecho, but they can be fickle, scary and very hard to predict because of our unique environment in the D.C. region.

Thunderstorms usually move our way from the West but weaken as they cross the Blue Ridge, then become much stronger as they interact with moist breezes and boundaries from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac.

But researchers are finding cities and urban areas like this may actually change thunderstorms.

“I think that the idea of how cities affect precipitation is catching on,” says Robert Bornstein, San Jose State professor of meteorology.

Bornstein is a research meteorologist who has looked at the thunderstorm-city link for years.

He found from observations and computer simulations cases where lines of thunderstorms split as they approached New York City.

Does it happen here in Washington, too?

“I definitely believe there's a comparable effect in the D.C. area,” Bornstein says.

Bornstein's research has found that "the heat island effect" - where cities are warmer than the countryside - can act like a chimney and form thunderstorms.

The concrete and asphalt in urban areas, even visible from space, can also change thunderstorms' patterns.

Though it's fascinating research, it's not part of the forecasting toolkit yet.

“I do believe that as computing resources cheaper and faster down in scale and model features,” says Steve Zubrick, National Weather Service science and operations officer.