Hail is a form of precipitation that occurs when updrafts in thunderstorms carry raindrops upward into extremely cold areas of the atmosphere where they freeze into ice.

How does hail form?

There are two ideas about hail formation. In the past, the prevailing thought was that hailstones grow by colliding with supercooled water drops. Supercooled water will freeze on contact with ice crystals, frozen rain drops, dust or some other nuclei. Thunderstorms that have a strong updraft keep lifting the hailstones up to the top of the cloud where they encounter more supercooled water and continue to grow. The hail falls when the thunderstorm's updraft can no longer support the weight of the ice or the updraft weakens. The stronger the updraft the larger the hailstone can grow.

Recent studies suggest that supercooled water may accumulate on frozen particles near the back-side of the storm as they are pushed forward across and above the updraft by the prevailing winds near the top of the storm. Eventually, the hailstones encounter downdraft air and fall to the ground.

Hailstones grow two ways: by wet growth or dry growth processes. In wet growth, a tiny piece of ice is in an area where the air temperature is below freezing, but not super cold. When the tiny piece of ice collides with a supercooled drop, the water does not freeze on the ice immediately. Instead, liquid water spreads across tumbling hailstones and slowly freezes. Since the process is slow, air bubbles can escape resulting in a layer of clear ice.

Dry growth hailstones grow when the air temperature is well below freezing and the water droplet freezes immediately as it collides with the ice particle. The air bubbles are "frozen" in place, leaving cloudy ice.

Hailstones can have layers like an onion if they travel up and down in an updraft, or they can have few or no layers if they are "balanced" in an updraft. One can tell how many times a hailstone traveled to the top of the storm by counting the layers. Hailstones can begin to melt and then re-freeze together - forming large and very irregularly shaped hail.

How fast does hail fall?

We really only have estimates about the speed hail falls. One estimate is that a 1cm hailstone falls at 9 m/s, and an 8cm stone, weighing .7kg falls at 48 m/s (171 km/h). However, the hailstone is not likely to reach terminal velocity due to friction, collisions with other hailstones or raindrops, wind, the viscosity of the wind, and melting. Also, the formula to calculate terminal velocity is based on the assumption that you are dealing with a perfect sphere. Hail is generally not a perfect sphere!

Estimating Hail Size

Hail size is estimated by comparing it to a known object. Most hail storms are made up of a mix of sizes, and only the very largest hail stones pose serious risk to people caught in the open.

Hailstone size Measurement Updraft Speed
in. cm. mph m/s
bb < 1/4 < 0.64 < 24 < 11
pea 1/4 0.64 24 11
marble 1/2 1.3 35 16
dime 7/10 1.8 38 17
penny 3/4 1.9 40 18
nickel 7/8 2.2 46 21
quarter 1 2.5 49 22
half dollar 1 1/4 3.2 54 24
walnut 1 1/2 3.8 60 27
golf ball 1 3/4 4.4 64 29
hen egg 2 5.1 69 31
tennis ball 2 1/2 6.4 77 34
baseball 2 3/4 7.0 81 36
tea cup 3 7.6 84 38
grapefruit 4 10.1 98 44
softball 4 1/2 11.4 103 46


Understanding Damage and Impacts

Damage from hail approaches $1billion in the US each year. Much of the damage inflicted by hail is to crops. Even relatively small hail can shred plants to ribbons in a matter of minutes. Vehicles, roofs of buildings and homes, and landscaping are the other things most commonly damaged by hail.

Hail has been known to cause injury to humans, and occasionally has been fatal. The most deadly hailstorm on record occurred in India on April 30, 1988, killing 246 people and 1600 domesticated animals.

A large hailstone can cause serious injury. A hailstone the diameter of a baseball falls at a speed comparable to that of a pitched baseball - on the order of 100 mph! It's like being hit by a "beanball" thrown by a major league pitcher.


(The above information is from the National Severe Storms Laboratory)

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