It’s a sound you never hope to hear, but it’s quite common in West Texas.
Jody James, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the Lubbock National Weather Service office explains. “We get a lot of hail, we’re in one of the areas of the US that receives more hail and larger hail than a lot of the other US, especially in the central and western High Plains, from around Lubbock and northward to the central and northern high plains are known to be the area of the country that has some prolific hail each spring and early summer.”
But what factors are necessary for it to form and what determines its’ size?
“Hail is nearly always formed in convective updrafts, i.e. showers and thunderstorms. As water droplets are carried upward by intense updrafts, they are carried up above the freezing level and some processes occur where we begin to see those freeze. And then they start to accumulate ice at those temperatures and then begin to fall back down and then they get carried in the updraft again. And typically, hail will cycle through that several times”
Updrafts are strong rising currents of air and although hail can form just about any time of year, we typically see the strongest updrafts during the spring and summer months. Hail size is determined by how many times these ice particles circulate throughout the storm complex, so the stronger it is, the larger the diameter gets. Another factor that leads to our frequent hail storms is our geographic location. At around 3,000 feet, the South Plains is relatively high in altitude. Due to our elevated position in the atmosphere, it doesn’t take much distance to reach the freezing level.
“I think one of the factors that we see out here is the type of thunderstorms and our freezing levels are a little bit lower. I think that works in our favor, “favor”, of seeing larger and more hail. It is hard to get a thunderstorm that you might see in Houston in July, very difficult to get hail with that because it’s more of a moist, tropical-like or subtropical-like environment, so the freezing levels are way way up there and you’re just not typically going to see the kind of hail that we would see out here in West Texas in mid to late May for example,” James says.
With how frequently we see hail here in the South Plains, it is important to know how to stay safe when we have severe weather in the forecast.
“We normally don’t think of it as that deadly for humans, but it can be. And obviously with the fall speeds of these hail stones, once you get up to baseball and softball sized hail, the fall speeds can be near 100 or greater than 100 mph. So aside from a big mass of ice hitting you, it can also be falling at an incredible speed when it falls. […] if you are out in the hail, you can pull into a gas station canopy or any place that has a covering. The problem if you are outside you just want to get inside your vehicle or a sturdy structure”.