It was a Hail Mary pass.

Last Thursday, the gods or goddesses of storms played a long shot, and took the opportunity to deliver a bit of ice in the midst of summer.

Not all parts of the Island were affected some experienced only torrential rain, while others were pelted, pounded and pulverized by quarter-sized bits of hail (some even said golf-ball-sized). It might have been Nephalae, the Greek god of the clouds, or maybe the Harpyiae, demons of whirlwinds and storm gusts, or perhaps the Hecatoncheires, the gods of violent storms, that were to blame for the barrage.

If you do want some accountability, I suggest that you go straight to the source.

The genesis of hail occurs only in one type of cloud, and only during certain times of the year. Cumulonimbus clouds, also called thunderclouds or thunderheads, are the only type of cloud that produces hail, and only in the spring and summer can these balls of ice be created.

The secret is in the updraft. Within the heart of the cumulonimbus clouds is movement: movement of winds up and down. It is in these winds that hail is formed. Supercooled water freezes on a ‘host’ (dust, salt, or other solid particle) and up this frozen fragment goes. It will descend on the downdraft and be picked up again and added to on the updraft. Cycle after cycle, ice is added in layers like an onion, until the hailstone is too heavy to be lifted again. Then down to the ground it will fall.

When it hits, let’s hope that it is a miss. Hailstones can cause major damage to property (broken windows, car dents, et cetera) and to crops. Farmers will even take out insurance to protect against hail damage, which is estimated to cost more than $1.2 million per year!

At least nowadays there is some security against damage. In the 14th century, insuranceless Europeans had their own methods to ward off hail. They rang church bells and fired hail cannons, especially fervently in wine country, to dissuade the hail gods.

Sometimes, as we discovered last week, hail comes anyway. We were bombarded, but we could be considered lucky to have remained relatively unscathed. The largest hailstone that fell in this country (Coffeyville, Kansas) was more than five inches in diameter and weighed more than a pound and a half. In 1986 in Bangladesh, huge balls of ice weighing more than 2 pounds (about the size of a melon) killed 92 people.

It could have been worse in other ways, too: hailstorms could come more often. Cheyenne, Wyo., holds the record for most hail-prone city in the U.S., with almost 10 storms per season.

We don’t know when the next hailstorm will hit the Island, but (if the rumors are true) the winds will soon blow in another phenomenon, the President of the United States. Here’s hoping the weather cooperates during his vacation, and that Hail to the Chief is the only hail that welcomes him while he’s here!


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.