What is hail? What you need to know about hail storms, hail formation, and hail damage

April 6, 2022

Learn everything you need to know about hail storms, how hail is formed, and how you can prevent hail damage this spring!

If you live in Texas, chances are you've probably been stuck in a hail storm before; our state is prone to these large balls of ice that plummet from the sky and pummel property below. But what is hail, exactly? Why do some storms produce pebbles, yet others lob baseballs? More importantly, what can you do to prepare for it? To answer these questions, we need to understand how hail is formed!

That's why we're talking about hail storms, hail formation, and hail damage in part 2 of our spring storm series. Read on!

What is hail, exactly? How is hail formed?

Hail is a potentially dangerous type of frozen precipitation that forms inside thunderstorms. It can be as small as a pea, but in powerful storms, it can grow as big as a golf ball - or even larger!

Most of us have experienced hail at one point or another, but why does one storm drop hail when another does not? Why do some hailstones get so big? How does hail form?

How hail forms in a hail storm

In our previous blog, we talked about the formation of thunderstorms (check that out here if you haven't already). Understanding thunderstorms and the way they form is essential to understanding how hail is formed! 

As a brief review, a thunderstorm forms when moist unstable air is able to rise into cool air. This rising column of air is called an updraft, and it begins because warm air is more buoyant than cold air, and is able to rise through it (like a hot air balloon). 

Sometimes, these updrafts can be incredibly strong and can carry moisture tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere. But what goes up must come down! As the moisture in the updraft cools, it condenses into water droplets which freeze and fall. In a normal rain shower, these frozen droplets fall to the ground, melting long before they get there. However, if that updraft is strong enough, the rain drops are lofted back up through the storm and if they are taken high enough, those raindrops begin to freeze. 

These frozen pellets swirl around in the cloud, colliding with other rain droplets that freeze on contact and the hailstone begins to grow. As long as the updraft is strong enough, it will continue to get larger and larger until the weight becomes too great for the updraft to support, or if the updraft weakens. Then, the large ball of ice falls to the ground. 

Hail can take a number of different shapes depending on the conditions present within the storm cloud. Sometimes, you can see the layers of ice, clearly showing the incremental growth of the hailstone. Yet other hailstones may have the appearance of a jagged rock, which is the result of many smaller hailstones colliding and freezing together in the storm. 

To better understand hail, how it forms, and what impact it has on us, let's compare it to other kinds of frozen precipitation. 

Sleet vs hail: What's the difference between sleet and hail?

Although both hail and sleet are forms of frozen precipitation, they are very different in the way that they form and their impact on property. As we discussed, hail forms in powerful thunderstorms with a strong updraft, which causes water droplets to freeze and grow before falling.

Sleet, on the other hand, forms when rain falls from a cloud as liquid, but freezes in the air on the way down. Hail is most common in the spring when these powerful thunderstorms form, but sleet generally occurs in the colder months of winter when the airis much colder.

Generally speaking, sleet is nowhere near as destructive as hail. Sleet isn't large enough to cause any sort of damage on impact, but it is not without its own hazards. As it collects and accumulates on surfaces, it can melt and refreeze, creating hazardous driving and walking conditions, and the weight can cause structures and trees to break if there is enough of it. Driving in sleet is not only dangerous because of slick roads, but also because it can freeze to your windshield, substantially reducing your visibility. 

Graupel vs hail: What's the difference between graupel and hail?

At a glance, hail and graupel might look the same if you see it laying on the ground, but graupel is actually more like snow than hail. Also called snow pellets, graupel is formed when cool water droplets freeze onto a snow crystal. Unlike hail, graupel pellets are soft and break apart easily when touched. 

Facts about hail

When and where is hail most likely to occur? How much damage does it do each year? Just how big can hail get? Let's take a look at some interesting facts about hail!

When is hail season? 

In Texas, hail season lines up fairly well with the severe weather season during the spring; any time there is the possibility for severe storms, there can be a possibility of hail. While the exact dates can vary from year to year, Texas hail season generally falls within March and August.

Where is hail common?

Because powerful thunderstorms are often responsible for hail, hail storms can happen anywhere severe storms occur. In the United States, the area stretching from Texas to North Dakota, including parts of Wyoming and Colorado, is generally where hail is most common. You may notice that this is also where Tornado Alley traditionally has been drawn, and that's no accident. Both tornadoes and hail require powerful thunderstorms, so it stands to reason that where one is common, the other is common, too. 

What state gets the most hail? 

Texas is routinely the state with the most number of hail events annually. According to the Insurance Information Institute, the top five states by number of major hail events in 2022 were Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, and South Dakota. Texas had 458 major hail events, which is less than 2021 where we experienced 688. Of course, this is partially due to the size of Texas; it may receive more hail events, but it's also quite a bit larger than the other states in the list.  

How much damage does hail cause annually? 

In 2021, there were approximately 6.8 million properties in the United States that experienced at least one damaging hail event, causing $16.5 billion in losses. Of those properties that experienced damaging events, Texas had an estimated 1,591,074 properties damaged by hail resulting in $5.1 billion dollars in claims, according to a recent report by Verisk

What's the biggest hailstone ever recorded? 

You can estimate hail size by comparing it to ordinary items you are familiar with. The following are some common comparisons you might see and their relative size comparison. 
  • Pea = 1/4 inch diameter
  • Quarter = 1 inch diameter
  • Ping-Pong Ball = 1 1/2 inch diameter
  • Golf Ball = 1 3/4 inch diameter
  • Baseball = 2 3/4 inch diameter
  • Softball = 4 inch diameter
The largest hailstone ever recorded was a staggering 8 inches in diameter, and fell on the unfortunate town of Vivian, South Dakota. That's like two softballs put together, or perhaps something like a honeydew melon!

The largest hailstone in Texas history fell near Hondo, TX in April of 2021. The "Hondo Stone" measured in at whopping 6.416 inches! While shy of the record from South Dakota, this brick of ice would still cause serious damage to whatever it hit.

Hail protection and preparedness

Now that we've learned a little bit about hail and how it forms, it's clear that it is something not to be taken lightly. But what can you do to prepare for a hail storm? How can you protect yourself, your family, and your property?

Weather awareness

As with all severe weather and weather phenomenon, awareness is the first step in preparedness; if you know that hail is a possibility, you can take steps to avoid it and be ready to protect yourself from it. 

Pay attention to weather forecasts. Your local station will let you know when the threat of hail is imminent. It can be difficult to tell with certainty where, when, or if hail will be a threat, but the closer you get to a day, the more accurate a forecast will be. So, you don't have to watch every single "weather on the ones" every single day, but catching the evening forecast at the top of the week will give you an understanding of which day or days might require more attention than others. 

Check the Storm Prediction Center's Outlooks. Like tornadoes and damaging winds, the Storm Prediction Center issues outlooks that show the probability and severity of hail in a given area on a given day. By looking at these outlooks, you can get a reasonable idea of whether or not hail is going to be an issue for your area. 

Hail probability is indicated by color shaded regions on the map, the lowest being 5% with colors indicating 15%, 30%, 45%, and 60%. Additionally, a black-hatched section on top of a shaded area indicates 10% or greater probability of significant (two-inch or more) hail within 25 miles of a point. 

How to spot a hail storm

If you're out and about when thunderstorms that could produce hail pop up, you'll want to have some idea of how to tell which ones are likely to drop hail. Weather forecasts are a great way to prepare for the possibility of hail, but it can't necessarily tell you which storms are hail storms or predict when and where exactly it will fall. Fortunately, there are tools you can use to monitor storms in real time to give you a better idea where hail is likely to fall.

Radar reflectivity. When we look at the weather radar, it's easy to see when a shower or storm is on the way - but how do you know if it has hail inside it? The beams of a doppler radar can tell a lot of different information about a storm based upon how the beam interacts with the storm. 

Hail generally appears in the center of a storm on radar, and is usually a dark pink, purple, white, or black (depending on the specific colors used), whereas rain is usually green, yellow, orange, and red. This is known as a hail core, and while these dark colored spots don't always mean large hail - they can be a large quantity of smaller hail, or even large droplets of rain - it is a good indicator. 

Hail spikes. Sometimes, radar images display what is known as a hail spike when large hail is present in a thunderstorm. The radar beams actually bounce off of the hail, hit the ground, and then return to the radar station. The result is a faint spike protruding off of the storm on radar. This isn't actually where the hail is, however - it's more of a shadow. Still, to a trained eye, it can indicate significant hail.  

Cloud watching. What does a hail storm look like? It can be hard to tell whether or not a storm cloud will have hail just by looking at it, but there are some things you can look for. Generally speaking, the taller the cloud, the more likely it is to have hail. These clouds often have an eerie green or turquoise color that occurs when sunlight shines through the heavy rain or hail within the storm. 

Protect people, pets, and plants

First and foremost, when hail is in the forecast near you it is important to protect yourself, your family, and your pets. 

Fortunately, hail rarely results in fatalities in modern times, but it can absolutely cause serious injuries. Most injuries take place when people are caught outdoors in a place where shelter isn't nearby. For example, if you're out at a festival or fair in the middle of a field away from cars, and your only cover are flimsy tarps, you could be in serious danger if large hail begins to fall. 

That's why it's important to remain weather aware and avoid traveling to areas where no cover is nearby when hail is a potential threat. If you are out, stay alert and remain aware of potential cover should the need arise. 

Unlike you, your pets don't know it is going to hail until the first stone hits the ground. By that time, it may be too late for them to take shelter. That's why it's a good idea to get your pets into shelter if hail seems imminent in the forecast. If you can't bring them indoors or take them into the garage, try to confine them to an area with adequate cover, such as a covered porch, kennel, paddock, or barn.

Plants can also be pummeled by hailstones. Just like you protect plants when the temperature drops below freezing, you will want to protect your plants from hail. Take them into a garage, indoors, or in shelter of some kind if possible. 

Crops are often unfortunate victims of large hail storms; the relentless volley of ice can easily destroy a field of corn, for example. Unfortunately, you can't cover an entire field physically, but there are commercial insurance options that can help you insure your yield. 

Protecting your car from hail

Of course, the easiest way to protect your car from hail is to park it in the garage! Carports are a good solution too, but sometimes hail can come in at an angle and still hit your trunk or hood. 

If you don't have cover of any kind, there are some emergency methods you can take as a last resort, such as covering it with blankets, protecting the windshield with your floor mats, and so on (check out our blog for a complete guide to protect your car from hail). 

Lastly, if you're out on the road when hail hits, you should obviously try to find cover as quickly as you can safely do so. However, that is not always an option; sometimes you're simply too far away from any protection. In that case, you'll want to slow as much as you safely can to reduce the impact and find a safe place to pull over out of traffic to wait it out; your car may sustain damage, but that's going to happen anyway, and driving through hail can be far more dangerous. As you wait, move to the center of the car as best you can to avoid any potential glass shards and cover yourself with a jacket or blanket if you have one on hand. 

While it may seem like a good place to park your car, you should not look to the space beneath bridges and overpasses for shelter. Too often everyone else has the same idea, and the roads beneath become clogged and congested by people trying to save their cars. This impedes the flow of traffic, forcing everyone else on the road to sit in the hail and preventing them from potentially driving to shelter. It can also be dangerous for you because visibility is low during a hail storm or heavy rain, and people may not see you when you've stopped. 

Protecting your roof, home, and property from hail

If you know that hail is likely on a given day, there isn't much you can do in that moment to prevent your roof from getting damaged; much of what determines how damaged your roof will be depends on the size of the hail, the state of your roof, and the material your roof is made out of. 

With that in mind, it is important to have your roof inspected regularly to make sure that there aren't weak points and repaired if necessary. Hail might only damage a well-maintained roof, but could cause serious leaks if there are already weak or otherwise compromised spots. 

If your roof is hit by a hail storm, it is important to have it inspected for damage as soon as possible. You can perform a preliminary inspection yourself, but it often requires a professional to safely and accurately assess damage as it can sometimes be difficult to spot beneath shingles. In some cases, it may be necessary to repair or even replace your roof if the damage is extensive enough. 

Lastly, make sure fragile belongings are covered or put in doors if there is a possibility of hail in the forecast. This could be any sort of lawn decorations or possibly outdoor furniture with glass.

Hail insurance

Hail can be a serious threat to your property and belongings; you don't have to be a meteorologist to realize that giant chunks of ice falling from the sky can break things. We do our best to cover, protect, and avoid hail, but we aren't always able to. So, in the event that your property is damaged by hail, how does insurance help repair the damage?

Property insurance, home insurance and hail

Fortunately, hail damage is one of the common perils that property insurance and home insurance covers.

However, with the rising cost of labor and construction, it's important to make sure you have enough insurance coverage; what may have been enough to repair a hail-damaged roof two years ago might not be enough now. 

Auto insurance for hail

Although large hailstones are capable of completely totalling your car, even smaller stones can cause a large amount of damage to your vehicle. It can dent the hood, roof, and trunk, chip paint and crack or chip your windshield.

Remember, a basic liability policy, which is the minimum required by Texas law, will not cover hail damage to your car. In order to have insurance protection for hail damage, as well as other types of storm-related damage, you need comprehensive coverage, also known as other than collision (OTC) coverage. 

For both home and auto insurance, speak to your insurance agent today - before the next hail storm - to make sure that your policies will adequately cover your property if it is damaged by hail.

Germania's Spring Storm Series

Make sure you're weather aware this spring storm season - check out the rest of our severe weather blogs!

1. Thunderstorms
2. Hail (you are here!)
3. Lightning 
4. Tornadoes 
5. Microbursts and Downbursts

What is hail? Hailstones covering grass

Germania Insurance is here to help protect your property from hail damage this spring storm season! Don't wait until after the next storm to get the right coverage - request a free quote online or reach out to your local Germania Authorized Agent today!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

What do you want to read more about? For suggestions, questions, or content-related inquiries, contact us at content@germaniainsurance.com!

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