Hail Storm the White Plague

When a storm spews forward hard packed ice pellets and hail, insurance companies cower in wait for the onslaught of claims to roll in; storm chasers race forward hoping to catch a glimpse of a tornado being formed, and farmers continue to curse the dreaded “white plague”! For centuries farmers have relied on weather to nurture and protect their beloved crops, but in the matter of minutes it can be laid to waste by a singular storm of hailstones.

The term “white plague” can refer to a biological type of outbreak, or it could even have a more biblical origin, but in the agricultural circles it can mean financial devastation to both crops and personal property. Hail is neither beautiful or a sight to behold, it is quite simply the uninvited guest that seems to drop in when it is most unwanted. Such storms cost farmers their livelihood and can destroy an entire years worth of work in just a short period of time. To visualize the true economical implication we could take a look at the fateful storm that landed in Calgary, Alberta, during a storm in July of 1996, the storm didn’t last more than just a few hours but, after it passed the devastation totaled an estimated 303 million dollars in crop, and personal property damage.

What is a Hail Storm?

Deep within a black ominous thundercloud is various columns of air known as “updrafts”, and within these updrafts rain droplets can be hefted high into the atmosphere where the colder air can freeze and meld it together to form small to larger ice pellets, which meteorologists call “graupels”. These droplets of water are churned by the updraft, and during this process they continue to gather more water and ice, much like a snowball rolling down a hill gathers more snow. When the lumps of ice water (graupels) become much too dense to be supported by the column of air (similar to a vacuum cleaner and ping-pong ball effect), they plummet to the earth at speeds of 64mph or more. Some hailstones are not much larger than marbles, due to a lower pressure within the air column, but in some cases hailstones can be as large as a grape fruit, which in turn can cause massive property damage and personal injury.

Hailstorms are fast moving systems and do not last for extended periods of time, but it doesn’t take long for one to drive up a significant damage toll, not to mention the possibility for a tornado! Tornadoes may or may not precede a hailstorm, but a storm with the capability to produce hail does have some meteorological properties that make for a tornado producing super cell. Storm chasers have long since believed that during humid weather with the conditions like hail, it is highly likely that a tornado may have already or is soon to touchdown.

What to do?

Honestly, there is not much that can be done to protect your property or belongings in the event of a severe hailstorm. However, it is recommended if you’re driving to safely pull to the side of the road or under an over-pass. If you happen to be out for a stroll, and you see large hailstones falling, it is best to crouch low to the ground and try to fold your arms over-top of your head to prevent a concussive injury. It might be a good idea to park your car in the garage if a weather warning is predicting a heavy hailstorm, but it may not be worth risking injury to do this if the storm is already occurring. Sure nobody likes to see his or her car get pummeled by ice, but you might want to wait out the storm, to prevent being badly injured by a large chunk of hail.

If you have pets or livestock it might be best to open the doors to let them inside to the house or barn. These animals have strong instincts and know well enough to seek shelter during such storms. My grandfather used to say there was a bad storm coming when he watched the cattle gather underneath the foliage of a clump of trees. He said that they could sense a bad storm, even hours before it would begin; most of the time he was right!

My best advice with regards to hail is to listen carefully to the weather report, if a hailstorm is suspected be prepared before the storm hits. Don’t wait until it starts to try to protect your car or animals, and wait at least fifteen to thirty minutes before going out to assess any damage. Be prepared for the possibility of a tornado touchdown, and try to stay safely indoors if possible.

Overpasses may be safe refuge, but in the event of a tornado warning, it is best to avoid these locations, as they will not provide sufficient coverage despite what you may have seen on those storm chasers programs. A tornado can only be avoided in this situation, if the overpass is lower than ground level, such as the family that clung to the underneath of such a structure to survive a F3 tornado. Hopefully nobody will ever have to feel the hard “clunk” on the head of a bad hailstorm, but if you have no shelter, ensure you use your head and not your skull to protect yourself!