Hailstorms, Do They Look Different?

Typical Hailstorm...Or Is It?

severe storm in western Oklahoma

A severe thunderstorm rolling across the western prairie. This storm blasted windows out of a town in western Oklahoma with golf ball size hail and 70 m.p.h. winds. The worst of the hail was under the dark shelf of clouds close to the ground. Cold temperatures cause clouds to become lower to the ground. With the typical blue-greenish cast it's common knowledge this is what hailstorms are expected to look like. Actually, it could not be further from the truth. Let's compare this 1976 storm to a few of the known big hailers I have come across in the last ten years.

Sometimes You Can See Completely Under A Bad Hailstorm

hailstorm and old barn An early spring hailstorm turns the green grass white over the fields of west Texas. Note the lack of dark low clouds. We can see completely under this storm which contains almost all hail and little rain. Such pure hailstorms are more transparent then classic thunderstorms. Travelers may be fooled by storms with this appearance. Without the hail in the foreground this cloud would not be that threatening.

High Plains Low Precipitation (LP) Storms

high base hailstorm Storm across the high plains may have deceptively high cloud bases. This feature allows more light to filter in under the storm clouds. Since hail does not occur in the density of heavy rain, this too lets in light making for a bright storm. This particular cell was dumping very large hail across northern Kansas in the yellow of the late evening sunlight. Long streamers and striations are visible in the clouds as evidence of the hail falling through them, but nothing is seen below cloud base.

Hail Streamers and Anvil Hail

hail streamers

Storms do give away their secrets to careful observers. Note the thick streamers in the clouds. This a signature for very large hail when nothing is seen below cloud base. These streamers may be distinguished from typical virga streamers, which have a thinner appearance and carry the cloud base lower with them. This storm battered the area west of Abiline, Texas with softball size (4 inch plus) hailstones. It's quite likely this hail was coming from the anvil well above these clouds, and falling through the lower layers making the streamers evident.

Vertical Looking LP Supercell and Big Hail Producer

Very damaging hailstorm

This is an example of a LP thunderstorm in far western Oklahoma. The hail streamers were evident on this storm in advance of the main storm cloud. Much of the hail came out of the anvil, the ice crystal cloud that sweeps down stream in the jet stream. Vehicles were struck many miles in front of the storm with baseball hail while in the sunlight of the setting sun. Most did not know where the hail came from. In some cases storms like this will throw hail out the top and it may land anywhere within a few miles of the main thunderstorm cloud. This storm rotated for hours and had a tornadic signature on radar but no tornadic circulation ever made it to cloud base or the ground. Cells like this are a hazard to aviation flying in the near vicinity.