Calgary

Ontario researchers choose Alberta's 'hailstorm alley' as site for 5-year study

Researchers at Ontario’s Western University are launching the Northern Hail Project in Alberta — a five-year study aimed at better understanding how hail forms, why it falls in certain areas and what can be done to mitigate problems caused by powerful storms.

Massive Calgary hail storm happened 2 years ago on June 13, 2020

Researchers with the Northern Hail Project set up hailpads in the foothills of Alberta. (Reports2NHP/Twitter)

On rainy days, when the sky turns grey and the clouds look angry, Khalil Karbani says he still gets nervous.

He's one of the many northeast Calgary residents who, two years ago, watched as hailstones the size of golf balls dropped from the sky, ripping through siding on homes, smashing through windows and slamming into vehicles. 

The massive storm also took an emotional toll on many people in Karbani's community of Taradale, just east of the Calgary International Airport.

"People were going through depression and anxiety," Karbani said in an interview on Alberta at Noon

"People had to take money out of their own pockets, put it on their credit cards, get a line of credit or a loan out to get their home back to where it was."

The 2020 storm was the costliest hail event in the country's history, with about $1.2 billion in insured damages. 

But as home to 'hailstorm alley' — roughly bordered by Whitecourt in the north, High River to the south, Highway 2 in the west and the forested areas in the east — it's just one of the many hail events Alberta sees in any given year.

In fact, over the last decade, about 76 per cent of Canadian hail claims have come from Alberta, says Rob de Pruis, national director of consumer and industry relations at the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC).

In just the last three years, Alberta's share rose to 84 per cent. 

That's why researchers at Ontario's Western University are choosing hailstorm alley as the site for the Northern Hail Project — a five-year study aimed at better understanding how hail forms, why it falls in certain areas and what can be done to mitigate problems caused by powerful storms.

On June 8, researchers with the Northern Hail Project found some hail just west of Red Deer. They found hailstones up to 13 mm about an hour after the storm passed through the area. (NHP Field Project/Twitter)

"It's the region where a bunch of important factors come together to create ideal environments for hailstorms. The mountains definitely play a role," said Julian Brimelow, executive director of the Northern Hail Project.

"We have moisture coming off those crops and that moisture pulls along the foothills ... it can create something called the dry line and that can be a focal point for the initiation of storms."

This will be the project's first summer in action. Interns will be setting up equipment along the foothills to monitor conditions as well as chasing hailstorms as they develop.

"The last time we did active research into hail in Canada was in the early 1980s, and we've got much better technology at our disposal now than we had back then. So we're wanting to learn," said Brimelow.

Along with analyzing hailstone samples, the group also wants to study atmospheric data to help better predict when storms will happen.

A hail damaged car parked on a flooded street as residents begin cleaning up in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, June 14, 2020, after a major hail storm damaged homes and flooded streets. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

It's possible a bit more warning could've saved some anguish for residents in Taradale.

Karbani had to write-off his son's car. His home also had about $48,000 in damages.

On top of it all, his daughter is now afraid when it rains. 

"That's not a nice thing for a kid to go through," he said. "It's tough."

Northern Hail Project

Before any solutions are proposed, Brimelow's team will start by gathering hail samples.

"We're actually going to be sneaking in behind the hailstorms to investigate the hail swaths," Brimelow said, referring to the stones the storms leave in their wake.

"Then we'll be taking those samples back to the lab where we'll be doing all kinds of analysis on them."

A lot of times hailstones aren't smooth and round, which impacts their aerodynamics and also makes them harder to simulate in studies, Brimelow said.

So, along with making their measurements and observations, they'll be making 3D copies of collected hailstones to use in tests measuring their impact potential.

"Nobody's really measured the full speed of natural hail beyond about three centimetres. So we were hoping to bridge that gap."

Researchers will travel around Alberta following hail storms so they can collect hailstones once they pass. (NHP Field Project/Twitter)

As for whether hailstorms are getting worse, Brimelow says there isn't much data on the long-term trends just yet. 

But the financial data seems to show storm intensity is escalating. Figures from the IBC show the average cost of hail damage across Canada has gone from $693 million in 2019 to $872 million in 2021.

"One could argue: 'Oh, well, there's more damage because there are more assets out there,'" he said. 

"I think there may be an underlying component there whereby as the atmosphere warms, it can increase the buoyancy and the instability and that drives the updrafts that are so important for growing hail and thunderstorms."

Insurance costs

As hail season continues to ramp up, de Pruis recommends Calgary residents check their coverage. 

While most home policies do cover hail damage, some residents may want to consider adding optional coverage like sewer backup or overland flooding, he said.

"Be prepared that if a storm is brewing, make sure that you and your family are safe and do what you can to protect and mitigate any of your property."

Meantime, if hail does fall in your area, Brimelow is asking for your help. 

If it's safe, snap a photo of a hailstone — preferably with a loonie or toonie for comparison, not your hand — and also note the date and the location where you found it. 

Those can be submitted to their Twitter page or by using #ABstorm. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Taylor Simmons

Digital associate producer

Taylor Simmons is a digital associate producer for CBC Calgary. She has a masters in journalism from Western University and has worked as a multiplatform reporter in newsrooms across Canada, including in St. John's and Toronto. You can reach her at taylor.simmons@cbc.ca.

With files from Alberta at Noon

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