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The Hunt for Big Hail

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In August, a few days before his 68th birthday, Leslie Scott, a cattle rancher in Vivian, S.D., went to the post office, where he received some bad news. His world record had been broken, the clerk told him. That’s, the hailstone Mr. Scott collected in 2010, which measured eight inches across and weighed nearly two kilos, was not the biggest ever recorded. Some people in Canada had found an even bigger one, the clerk said.

“I used to be sad everywhere in the weekend,” Mr. Scott said, just a few days after he heard the news. “I’ve been telling everybody that my record was broke.”

Fortunately for Mr. Scott, this was not quite right. On Aug. 1, a team of scientists from Western University in London, Ontario, collected a large hailstone while chasing a storm in Alberta, about 75 miles north of Calgary. The hailstone measured five inches across and weighed slightly greater than half a pound — half the scale and one-quarter the heft of Mr. Scott’s. So it was not a world record, but a Canadian one.

The Canadian hailstone added to the list of regional records set prior to now couple of years, including Alabama’s in 2018 (5.38 inches long, 0.612 kilos), Colorado’s in 2019 (4.83 inches, 0.53 kilos) and Africa’s in 2020 (around seven inches long, weight unknown). Australia set a national record in 2020, then set it again in 2021. Texas’ record was set in 2021. In 2018, a storm in Argentina produced stones so big that a recent class of hail was introduced: gargantuan. Larger than a honeydew melon.

However the record-setting has include increased hail damage. Although the frequency of reported “hail events” in the USA is at its lowest in a decade, based on a recent report by Verisk, a risk assessment firm, insurance claims on cars, houses and crops damaged by hail reached $16.5 billion in 2021 — the best ever. Hail can strip plants to the stem and effectively total small cars. Ten years after the record-setting storm in Vivian, the tin roofs of some buildings are still dented. On Wednesday, a hailstorm killed a toddler within the Catalonia region of Spain.

“It’s considered one of the few weather hazards that we don’t necessarily construct for,” said Ian Giammanco, a meteorologist on the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. “And it’s getting larger and worse.”

Although the changing climate probably plays a task in these trends, weather experts say, a more complete explanation might need something to do with the self-stoking interplay of human behavior and scientific discovery. As neighborhoods sprawl into areas that have heavy hail and greater hail damage, researchers have sought out large hailstones and documented their dimensions, stirring public interest and welcoming further study.

Julian Brimelow, the director of the Northern Hail Project, a recent collaboration amongst Canadian organizations to review hail, whose team found the record hailstone in August, said, “It’s a fairly exciting time to be doing hail research.”

The fixation with big hail goes back to at the very least the Sixties, when Soviet scientists claimed that they may significantly reduce the scale of a storm’s hailstones by dispersing chemicals into the atmosphere. The tactic, called cloud seeding, promised to save lots of thousands and thousands of dollars in crop damage a yr.

Within the Nineteen Seventies, the USA funded the National Hail Research Experiment to replicate the outcomes of the Soviet experiments, this time by cloud seeding in hailstorms above Northern Colorado. Scientists then collected the biggest hailstones they may find to see if it worked.

It didn’t. And a decade of research demonstrated that the Soviet effort probably hadn’t worked either. Each countries eventually gave up on the thought, and hailstone research stalled, although cloud seeding to extend rain and snowfall continued — and continues to today — all over the world.

During that lull, in 1986, a hailstone reportedly weighing 1.02 kilograms — about two and 1 / 4 kilos, the heaviest ever recorded — was collected in Gopalganj, Bangladesh, during a storm that killed 92 people. All record of the hailstone — excepting eyewitness accounts and its purported weight — was lost. The Gopalganj stone became something of a fable amongst hail researchers, with an ethical attached: Big hailstones were on the market, but documentation was vital.

This prompted Kiel Ortega, a meteorologist who began doing hail research in 2004, to begin cold-calling. Using Google Earth, he found businesses that sat within the paths of storms and rang them for on-the-ground updates. “As much as I like chasing storms,” he said, “sooner or later, you’re not going to manage to pay for or people to maintain going out.”

Weather models indicated where hail might form and what the common size of the hailstones is likely to be, but their predictions were often way off. So Mr. Ortega assembled a team of researchers and undergraduate students to cobble together reports at any time when a serious hailstorm formed in the USA. How big was the “hail swath” — the realm of the storm that dropped hail? How big was the largest hailstone?

Most reports of record hail are made by civilians, however the accuracy is commonly lacking. The very first thing most individuals do once they find an enormous hailstone? Take an image. Second? Show it to their family or friends. Third? Put it within the freezer — where sublimation, the phase change from solid ice to water vapor, can shrink the hailstone over time.

Mr. Scott, in Vivian, kept his world record within the freezer for weeks before someone from the National Weather Service was in a position to officially measure and weigh it. During that point, it shrank by about three inches, he said. “I just didn’t realize what I had,” he said. “There’s loads more hailstones that fell, and there have been larger ones than the one I picked up.”

Every hailstone has a story cryptically etched in its shape and layers. To decode the story, scientists use mathematical models to predict where hail will fall and what it can seem like; they then collect and analyze actual hailstones to refine those models, piecing together a stone’s path from the storm to the bottom.

But a number of the most elementary features of enormous hail remain shrouded in mystery; survey procedures are inconsistent, and funding is scarce. How briskly do these hailstones fall? What gives a hailstone its shape? How large can a hailstone possibly get?

“Hail data are terrible,” Dr. Brimelow said. “It might be considered one of the worst data sets on the planet.”

Just about all hail is created in supercells, or storms with updrafts of rising air that slowly rotate. Small pieces of ice, called embryos, get swept into those updrafts like “a fountain of particles,” said Matt Kumjian, a meteorologist at Penn State University who studies the inner dynamics of storms. The embryos smash into water droplets, becoming hailstones that proceed to grow until they’re too heavy to remain suspended after which fall to the bottom.

Over the past couple of years, Dr. Giammanco and his colleagues have traveled around North America making 3-D scans of enormous hailstones. Later within the lab, using “probably probably the most sophisticated ice machine on the planet,” Dr. Giammanco said, the team recreates the hailstones to calculate their fall speed and the damage they may cause.

Mr. Ortega and his colleagues have been using high-speed photography to capture large hailstones in motion. This entails sprinting in front of supercells and establishing camera systems to raised understand how briskly the ice is moving when it hits the bottom and what shape it takes just before impact.

Each detail is a clue. A cloudy hailstone layer indicates that the water froze immediately on the embryo, trapping air bubbles inside. Clear ice means the water had time to expand across the embryo before freezing. Spherical hailstones are thought to have tumbled around within the supercell; spiky ones shoot like comets through the storm.

The tip of a hailstone’s story is commonly what attracts public attention. If some ice breaks your windshield, do you actually care what path it took through a supercell? But, Dr. Kumjian said, retracing the ontogeny of hail might help scientists higher predict where and when large hailstones will fall next.

The record hailstone in Canada was collected when the Northern Hail Project intercepted a supercell because it was passing through central Alberta. The researchers used radar forecasting to predict the storm’s path, then pulled as much as a stretch of road around 20 minutes after the hail swath had passed. The bottom was affected by baseball-size hailstones, the biggest of which the researchers bagged and froze.

The most important hailstones “are really more of a tutorial interest,” Dr. Brimelow said, because they “fall in such low concentrations that they’re probably not as hazardous as golf-ball-size hail.” But, Dr. Kumjian said, on the lookout for “absolutely the worst-case scenario” can refine forecasting models and help explain supercell dynamics. Studying single hailstones over time can have an outsize effect on the understanding of storms. And, he said, there may be the irresistible query, What’s the limit of nature?

Dr. Kumjian and Dr. Brimelow have been making a database of the biggest hailstones recorded all over the world. The 2 imagine they’ve determined the utmost possible size of hail: just over three kilos and around a foot in diameter. They are going to present their findings in September on the second-ever North American hail research workshop in Boulder, Colo.

Francis Lavigne-Theriault, who coordinates storm chases and field operations for the Northern Hail Project, said the presence of enormous hail in central Alberta indicated that it probably occurs “loads more steadily” than previously thought. Dr. Brimelow said that the record was “quite remarkable,” since the conditions for hail formation in the realm were generally less “juicy” than other areas within the country.

In other words, there are numerous more records to be found.

When Mr. Scott was informed that his world record had not been broken in any case and learned exactly what had happened — the crossed wires, the multiple records, the grams and the kilos — he was relieved. His birthday was not ruined; he could tell his family and friends that his record remained intact.

He chuckled, then said, “I’ll get a pat on the back.”

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