Killer Hailstones From Space

What’s with hail? It’s killing us: 246 people in India in one storm in 1988. It’s killing our crops: a billion dollars+ in annual damage, according to government scientists. It’s killing the roofs on our homes, our businesses, our cars, and other assets, billions more in damage every year.

Why is hail getting so much more frequent and damaging? What can we do about it?

U.S. insurers paid almost nine million claims for hail damage, totaling more than $54 billion, from 2000 through 2013, according to data from Verisk’s A-PLUS property database. The average claim severity during the period 2008-2013 was 65% higher than it was from 2000 through 2007.

A total of 2,116,980 hail damage insurance claims were processed from Jan. 1, 2013 through Dec. 31, 2015. Multiple severe hail storms caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage across the United States. In April 2015 alone, powerful storms with hail caused widespread damage across Texas, Missouri and Illinois. Additional storms caused hail damage across the Central, Southeast and Northeast U.S. Each of these storms are estimated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to have caused over $1 billion in damage.

“Personal Property, Homeowners” was the policy type most affected by hail damage insurance claims from 2013 through 2015. On average, Personal Property Homeowners policies were represented over 50% more often than the next most popular policy type, “Personal Automobile,” in hail loss claims over the same three-year span.

May is the worst month, 165,087 claims on average, followed by April (149,040 claims on average), then June (129,085 claims on average). Hail can hit the ground with greater velocity as paintballs fired from a gun.

From 2010 to 2016, National Weather Service offices received an average of 6,339 reports annually of hail an inch or more in diameter. These large, severe hail events are capable of severe property damage that can cost homeowners and insurance carriers thousands of dollars to fix. Hail normally has to be the size of a golf ball before it will cause much damage.

So what’s being done? Many universities around the world are studying weather and its effects. A team at the University of Oklahoma is working on the Severe Hail Analysis, Representation and Prediction (SHARP) project,  with support from the National Science Foundation.

According to the Foundation, using the Stampede supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, SHARP researchers have gained a better understanding of the conditions that cause severe hail to form, and are producing predictions with far greater accuracy than those currently used operationally.

Nathan Snook, a SHARP research scientist, is hopeful. According to Snook, there’s a major effort underway to move to a “warning on forecast” paradigm, using computer model-based, short-term forecasts to predict what will happen over the next several hours and use those predictions to warn the public. Now, we can warn only when storms form and are observed.

“How do we get the models good enough that we can warn the public based on them?” Snook asks. “That’s the ultimate goal of what we want to do — get to the point where we can make hail forecasts two hours in advance.”

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