Hail: When Hard Rains Fall

      About a hundred years ago, there were some grapegrowers in Italy who had been hit pretty hard with hail. Crops had been damaged repeatedly and finally, in frustration they fired cannons into the clouds in an attempt to prevent the hail from forming.

      Hail is not a common event in our part of the country, and it is not usually associated with being on a damage causing scale. On the rare occurrences when we do have hail we usually make a big ordeal out of it. There are areas, however, which do commonly get bombarded by hail, and even on e area in the US known as Hail Alley.

      Hail Alley is about a 635 sq mile area centered around the point where the borders of Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming meet. This area receives an average of 9 to 11 days of hail per year, more than any area in North America. Farmers in that area are used to seeing their crops battered  by hailstorms severe enough to pile up in drifts!
      Hail usually forms in warm weather because heat from the surface rises to form cumulonimbus 
which contain strong updrafts. The tops of these cumulonimbus clouds reach high into the atmosphere and temperatures can drop to lower than -112 degrees F.

      At this height and temperature, water droplets freeze and begin to descend. The updrafts show their downward progress and it could take 10 to even 20 minutes for them to make their way to the 
ground. During the descent, layer after layer of supercooled water forms on the droplet, somewhat like layers of an onion.

      The high winds associated with thunderstorms often sculpt the shape of the hailstone. Common shapes are round, oval, pyramidal, disk or irregular. Some have been shaped like life savers with holes in the center. In the US, hail rarely exceeds ½ inch diameter, however, the largest hailstone on record does belong to Kansas. In 1970, at Coffeyvill Kansas, a huge hailstone fell and was preserved in a freezer until sent to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado. This giant hunk of hail weighed in at 1.7 pounds and was an impressive 17.5 inches in circumference, about grapefruit sized!

      One grapefruit sized hailstone is one thing, but there are more bizarre and deadly tales to tell. Storms that produce hailstones as large as golfballs, tennis balls and even baseballs are not uncommon. Less common are human deaths resulting from such formidable aerial assaults, but they do happen!

     In 1360, goose egg sized hail fell in Pauis and killed close to a thousand soldiers and horses belonging to the so far victorious King Edward III. The remaining soldiers were so disheartened Edward ended up signing the Treaty of Bretigny. 246 people and more than 1600 cattle, sheep and goats lost their lives to hail the size of oranges when it bell on New Delhi India in 1888.

     Wild fowl and animals are even less lucky than humans when at the mercy of hail. In July 1953 in Alberta Canada, a large hail storm battered a five mile wide area killing more than 36,000 ducks and ducklings. And only 4 days later, same area, another hail storm passed through taking another 27,000 waterfowl.  In July 1978, 200 sheep died when baseball sized hail assaulted them in Montana.

     While being a hail of a situation, odds against being killed by hail are pretty astronomical. It comes down to not being out in such weather. And those farmer who fired cannons into the clouds? Did they have an effect? Nah?but it probably made them feel better!

Copyright © 2001 Kathy A. Miles and Charles F. Peters II