Concerned by new evidence that damage from hailstorms could grow as global temperatures climb, scientists are asking for more resources to study how the icy stones form, including the use of an armored aircraft to fly into storms.
Seated in front of plaster models of giant hailstones, including a nearly 2-pound monster that set a world record this year when it fell near Córdoba, Argentina, experts said better radar and satellite-based observations are needed after a lull in research that began in the 1980s.
Ian Giammanco, lead meteorologist at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, noted that hail is “a forgotten peril.”
“But it is responsible for almost 70 percent of the property damage of insurance claims from thunderstorms in the U.S. each year,” he said. Dollar losses from these storms are likely to reach $10 billion in the United States this year, he added, “and most of that is hail.”
His remarks came at the start of a three-day conference hosted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to explore ways to reduce hail damage and to make better forecasts. Methods such as cloud-seeding that could prevent larger storms from forming were also discussed.
Andrew Heymsfield, an NCAR senior scientist, said the lab has been in talks with the Navy to procure a surplus Navy A-10 for research missions. Known as the Warthog, the titanium-armored aircraft was used to attack tanks during the Gulf War with a nose-mounted gatling gun. The plane would be fitted with instruments and flown into large forming hailstorms to learn more about the internal workings of the most damaging storms.
The last plane that could do that was retired in 2002. The renewed interest in hailstorms is timely, experts noted, because last week a storm with softball-sized hailstones hit Colorado Springs. It injured 14 people and damaged about 400 cars parked at the local zoo. Among the victims was a cape vulture and a muscovy duck; both residents of the zoo were killed. Last year, a large hailstorm that hit Denver triggered $2.3 billion worth of insurance claims for damage to stores, homes and cars.
Andreas Prein, another NCAR scientist, said severe hailstorms could become more common over some parts of the United States, particularly in a zone that extends from the Dakotas into northern Texas. Warmer, more humid air is likely to give storms more power, but more work is needed to trace the link between larger storms and climate change, Prein said.
Hail can result from large, swirling thunderstorms that create violent updrafts, sucking moist air upward into cooler, drier air, where water freezes amid differing wind speeds. “The question is how do these things interact?” Prein said.
Giammanco, the insurance expert, said news media often describe hailstones as being ball-shaped, but larger storms produce heavier hailstones that are not spherical. “They have weird shapes with spikes and lumps” that could cause more damage as the world’s population grows, he predicted.
Kristen Rasmussen, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, said that growing hail damage is a problem in mountainous areas worldwide. The largest recorded storms occurred over Argentina, where they damage grapes, citrus crops and livestock.
Although the area around Córdoba can see storms that drop more than 3 feet of large hailstones, it doesn’t have ground-based radar to track those events. Rasmussen and other researchers are preparing to install such a system there this year.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.