While at a party last Friday evening in southern LaGrange County, I heard several people remark about how black the clouds in the northwest were that afternoon, but there had been no rain. Well, I can tell you what that black cloud did in Middlebury!
The morning was a normal summery morning. We did an hour’s bike ride on the Pumpkinvine Trail before it “got too hot,” and remarked that it was a bit hazy and humid. Then we drove to Goshen to pick up a book at the library and get some groceries. On the way home, we remarked how the clouds were gathering. Once inside we started to hear thunder, but our weather radio siren alarm was silent and we thought it would amount to nothing. The thunder continued to rumble and the rain started—just a few big drops, not much wind—the kind of a summer thundershower I remember from childhood, not the “rush-to-the-basement” kind we experience on a regular basis now. I didn’t notice any lightning. No bright flashes nearby. The rain started coming down harder, and then I heard the tapping on the west windows: hail! There was a little more wind, but still not the kind that topples trees. The rain came down in buckets and so did the hail. After a few minutes, the hail was no longer tapping on the west windows, but was beating on the east windows. The cloud in question must have stalled out right over Middlebury and was backing up a little. The gutters couldn’t keep up with the rain and ice, and so the hail was cascading off our roof and piling up in front of the front door, where the house and the garage form an “L” shape. It piled up on our bird’s nest blue spruce and looked somewhat reminiscent of last winter.
Fortunately, after a half hour or so the hail stopped and the rain tapered off. But because of the shape of our house, there was quite a pile in front of the front door. When we left three hours later, there was still hail visible on the ground. When we came home that night, there was still hail by the front door. And when we got up the next morning, there were still two piles of hail by the front step. It looked like someone had dumped a cooler behind our bushes, but I know that wasn’t the case. The hail was pea-sized for the most part and the only damage I noticed was some grit on the sidewalk that had washed off the shingles on the roof. Nothing of concern. One cornfield about a quarter mile from our house looked shredded. The hail had really cut the leaves into ribbons, but the corn had not been knocked down. Other fields we passed didn’t seem to be affected at all. I don’t know how widespread the hailstorm was, but it was definitely an event at my house!
Hail is formed in those towering storm clouds where an updraft sucks up pollen, dust, insects, and water droplets. At the upper levels of these nimbus clouds the water is super-cooled, that is, it is colder than 320 but it is still a liquid. To freeze, it needs to have something to freeze onto, like the aforementioned pollen, dust, or insects. When the water droplets encounter one of these, it immediately forms into ice around the object. When it becomes too heavy for the wind to hold it aloft, it drops down, but if the winds are very strong, it may be lifted up again and another layer of ice forms on the hailstone. Eventually, the hailstone is too heavy and it falls to earth. According to the Atmospheric Sciences website from Texas A&M University, hail can fall at a speed up to 90 miles an hour, and can attain the size of a softball and weigh well over a pound. Our hailstorm was no way near that bad—just enough to be interesting without being frightening, although had I been caught outdoors, it certainly would have stung. Severe hailstorms with large hail can kill animals and people, but usually that doesn’t happen.
So when you see those exceptionally dark clouds, remember that someone somewhere may be experiencing very different weather from where you are, and maybe not even very far away! Stay alert!