Alberta is a haven for storm chasers in the summer months, especially after solstice, as we have some of the most epic hailstorms in the world. Not sure if that’s something to be proud of, but there you have it.
Because our higher elevation means that the cool air required to create a hail stone tends to be closer to the ground than further out on the prairies, we are more likely to see hail than other parts of the country. Hail forms when updrafts (warm, dusty air from the prairies) carry thundercloud raindrops upward into extremely cold areas of the atmosphere (thanks to our proximity to the Rockies), where they freeze and merge into lumps of ice. The tiny lumps continue to cycle up and down in the cloud, building up more layers of ice until they become too heavy for the updraft to support, they then fall to the ground at speeds of up to 100 km/h (sometimes more). So bigger updrafts/winds can create some unbelievable hail stones by being able to keep those lumps of ice suspended for a longer period. We commonly see stones ranging from pea to golf ball sized in our area of the Foothills, but stones can be as large as a softball or small melon. The largest stone recorded in North America was in Vivian, South Dakota in July 2010. It measured 8” at its widest and weighed 1.94 lbs. That must have left a mark when it landed!!!
Much of the hail we get is not economically or agriculturally significant as it is too small or too soft to cause any damage to plants or structures. If you have enough of those small stones over a long period, though, the damage can accumulate. The moisture that comes from a hailstorm is often welcome in the more arid parts of the province, too. The slow melt of the hail stones provides a source of moisture that’s hard to beat. Hey, I’m looking at the silver lining here, ok?
In August 2019, southern Alberta experienced a massive hailstorm that was visible from space. The path of the storm is visible from the top left to the bottom right of the photo. It began near High River and Okotoks, passing through Blackie, Vulcan, then Enchant and tapering off south of the Taber/ Barnwell area in the arid grasslands.
The economic repercussions of this storm were astounding. Our own crop, located SW of Vulcan was destroyed, totally flattened with no hope of being able to recoup any income from the field. The barley had reached maturity and begun to ripen so the plants were unable to regrow again and, even if they had, it would have been even more of a mess to deal with. The sweet corn that Taber and Barnwell are famous for was wiped out. The bulky, high moisture corn stalks were stripped of their leaves, the tops of the plants and the ears of nearly ripe corn knocked to the ground, damaged, and bruised. What had been a promising cash crop became livestock feed within minutes.
Farmers who had spent many hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce a crop, saw their hard work vanish in an instant. It’s a terrible thing to watch. You see the storm clouds brewing, you feel the barometric pressure falling, the winds become still at ground level, the humidity increases. All signs point to a storm, and then you hope upon hope that it’s only rain. When the raindrops switch to hail stones, your heart just drops. There’s nothing you can do to save your crop. There’s no umbrella, there’s no canopy like so many car dealerships have now. You just watch it all get destroyed.
Farming is a very expensive venture. Land is commanding premium prices, even for poor soil with no water and no fences. A single piece of farm equipment is now worth more than most houses, and it often only gets used for a few weeks each year!
Insurance helps, but it certainly isn’t perfect. Crop insurance payouts with government programs like AFSC or SCIC will likely mean you don’t qualify for AgriStability support. Adjustment of hail damaged crops is difficult to teach and hard to learn when it requires a “feel” that only comes from a practiced eye. Private hail insurance provided by several reputable companies across the Prairies can help shore up the gap between government insurance and the bill collector that comes round regardless of how well your crops have performed. If you opt for hail insurance, I suggest going through a local agent. They are there to help guide you through the process and make the best decisions for your farm. Many agents represent more than one company and can provide you with the most competitive rates available with just one call.
Hailstorms are just one of the things that Mother Nature likes to throw at farmers, which leads to incredibly high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. If you, or someone you know, are struggling and worried about the stigma of not being ok, there’s help! The Do More Agriculture Foundation was formed by farmers, for farmers. Their website has all kinds of great articles both for people who are feeling overwhelmed, scared, lost, or just plain sad, to articles with advice for someone who sees a loved one going through a rough patch. You are not alone.
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