Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What The Hail Was That?

Yesterday, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes wrought havoc upon many Oklahoma communities. First, I would like to offer all my hopes to those affected, wishing them each a speedy rebound.

Among the bizarre weather yesterday (triple cyclones, for instance, or the weird way in which electrical towers can be toppled while delicate glass curios remain unscathed) were the reports of large, baseball-sized hailstones that pounded the region.  While hail during a thunderstorm is no rarity in Oklahoma, baseball and softball sized globes of ice aren't an every day occurrence - and they cause significant, sometimes deadly damage. But far rarer than these are the amorphous globs of ice that have been reported that bear no resemblance to the typical spherical shape.

For instance, in October 1993, Keith Partain reported the observance of oddly shaped ice falls that accompanied a brief tornadic event. The ice formations resembled spiked balls with "grotesque" arms radiating from their cores. While Partain claimed to have frozen samples, no images seem to exist (at least on the Internet). The drawing to the left was found accompanying the report on the Science Frontiers website. A cursory search for Partain through Google reveals an association with the reporting of other strange phenomena, but no actual images of his unusual find. However, oddly-shaped hail is out there to see. Flickr member Crabasa (a.k.a Carter Rabasa) posted an image simply entitled "Texas Hail" that bears some semblance to what Partain had described.

This report, which was supplied by Mr. Partain himself in a personal communique from that year, in some ways resembles reports of "ice falls".  This phenomenon is comprised of witness testimony to the fact that large, sometimes multi-pound chunks of ice have fallen from the sky. In 1965, a fifty pound chunk of ice crashed  through the roof at a refinery in Woods Cross, Utah.

Some have dismissed these ice falls as accumulated ice dislodging from passing planes, but reports predate the advent of aircraft.  For instance, in 1849 a large, "irregularly shaped" mass of ice (20 feet in diameter) fell to earth near the Estate of Ord in Balvullich, Scotland.

Others have speculated that hail can coalesce to a large degree, forming these blocks of ice aggregately in the air before finally falling to earth. A Pennsylvania man reported the sudden and alarming fall of large chunks of ice to a local meteorologist in 1957.  The first that came careening over his head before crashing some yards away, weighed roughly 50 lbs, and the second, which fell moments later, was approximately half that.  Upon inspection, meteorologists Matthew Peacock and Malcolm J. Reider noted that the ice had frozen quickly and was riddled with dust, fibers, and algae.  The men described the accretion as having been formed like a "popcorn ball".  It was concluded that a mass of hailstones had somehow congealed in the air before falling. Strangely, though, were these sediments as well as the presence of salts and other minerals in such high degrees as to be unfit for drinking. Later, Paul Sutton of the U. S. Weather Bureau at Harrisburg, stated that the ice "was not formed by any natural process known to meteorology."

What are we to make of these unusual weather phenomena? While I don't doubt that there is some untold force at work in thunderstorms that could cause many disparate hailstones to coalesce into some large cluster, I have to pause at reports of ice chunks 20 feet in diameter. If documented better when found, such strange events could help scientists better understand the weather that plagues us.

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