Some things on our planet are so ridiculous that when you really think about them, it’s enough to make you go biblical. Frogs falling from the sky, crop circles, giant swirling hurricanes, belching volcanoes, sulphur-based life forms and Paris Hilton’s immense wealth (and equally as immense lack of IQ). And then there’s hail. The fact that the updrafts within a thunderstorm can be strong enough to hold grapefruit-sized hail in suspension is nothing but ridiculous and wholly impressive.
Great balls of ice!
How Hail is Made
Hail consists of balls of ice shockingly called “hailstones”. You may even say that hail is frozen rain, but it deserves a slightly more complex explanation than that…
Hail is made within powerful thunderstorms or cold fronts. Cold fronts tend to produce smaller hail that might inconvenience your dog’s plans to go do his business outside (thereby inconveniencing your plans to keep your house hygienic). The large hail responsible for denting cars, destroying crops and severely upsetting your heard of cows is typically associated with large thunderstorm systems that are well-endowed in the vertical and are sustained by powerful updrafts. These traits are especially exhibited by the “Big Daddy” of all small-scale tempests: supercell thunderstorms. These you will find all over the world, but most notoriously skipping across “Tornado Alley” during the northern hemisphere’s summer months.
What cold fronts and thunderstorms have in common is that they are both low pressure systems that suck in air and expell it out their rear. Thunderstorms pull in great volumes of warm and moist air, which rise, cool and condense to form towering cloudy behemoths. Yes, cumulonimbus clouds. The air, once cooled, loses its momentum and proceeds to sink towards the ground. Together, these two channels of air comprise the updraft and downdraft zones that sustain a thunderstorm: its lungs if you’ll indulge a bit of poetic licence.
Now, as you know, temperature decreases with height in the atmosphere. That’s why the tops of high mountains are frozen and it’s why you should always, ALWAYS go for a pee before sky diving. At a certain altitude within a thunderstorm, which can soar to as high as the interface between the troposphere and stratosphere at approximately 10 km above sea level, the temperature reaches zero degrees Celsuis – the temperature at which water freezes. Above this 0°C isotherm (an obnoxious way of saying “line of equal temperature”) all the water droplets in suspension are frozen.
The strong updrafts within a thunderstorm sweep water droplets above the 0°C isotherm where they freeze (consult the pretty diagram below). These pellets of ice then fall back down towards Earth in the downdraft zone, plummeting below the 0°C isotherm and defrosting into big globs of water. This is why thunderstorm rain gets you soaking wet in 10 seconds flat. Just like Channing Tatum in “Magic Mike”.
However, some of these falling frozen pellets of rain get caught up in the updraft zone again and are swept back up above the 0°C isotherm. Only, they’ve gained a layer of water, which they collected as condensation while chilling out below the 0°C isotherm. This additional layer of moisture freezes, forming a new layer of ice over the original ice pellet.
This process can repeat itself several times and each time, the hailstone will grow larger and larger and larger as it collects more and more layers of ice. The next time you’re in the middle of a raging supercell storm, run outside, collect a couple of decent-sized hailstones, run back to the tornado shelter, bolt the trapdoor, watch your dad arm wrestle said trapdoor with an F5 tornado, watch your dad lose, resolve to become a hardcore white vest-wearing, tornado chasing sexpot with a serious deathwish. Oh! And remember those hailstones you collected? Cut them open to see those concentric circles of icy awesomeness.
When a hailstone finally gets too heavy for the thunderstorm’s updrafts to hold in suspension depends entirely on the strength of those updrafts. The stronger they are, the heavier the hailstones. This is why larger hailstones are associated with powerful thunderstorms, such as the Midwest supercells that are sustained by incredibly strong updraft zones.
And when hailstones get heavy, it’s time to run for cover.
Sorry Boys… Size Really Does Matter
Farmers are more obsessed with size than that clutch of vacuous floozies and jockstraps in Jersey Shore. Considering their livelihood depends on it (and not their egos), this is easy to understand and empathize with. But, in no other aspect are they more obsessed with size than with hail. The happiness and health of their livestock and crops depend on it.
Some thunderstorms can create hailstones that are big enough to cave your head in. Even if you do have brains. The next time you’re at a party, scoop an ice cube out your rum and coke and toss it at your mate (preferably the one who’s hitting on your girlfriend). Listen to the dulcet sounds of squealing as it clobbers him in the noggin. Now imagine something easily ten times the size of that ice cube falling thousands of metres (or feet) from the heavens. Yup! Ouch.
On 23rd June 2010, the largest hailstone in recorded American meteorological history fell in Vivian, South Dakota (image above). This great ball of ice weighed in at 0.88 kg (1.93 lbs) and was a staggering (if it had hit you in the head) 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter.
That’s two inches longer than your average you-know-what, tee hee!
Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message
Hailstones are physical evidence of the incredible air circulations going on inside a thunderstorm. Can you imagine how strong air must be to prevent something that weighs almost a kilogram from succumbing to gravity? I don’t know about you, but that blows my mind in the most delicious way. And so we see that thunderstorms are about so much more than just thunder and lightning and the occasional airborne cow. These bad tempered weather systems can also be that jerk at a party who throws ice at you.
But, then again, you were chatting up his cherry.