Severe storms that bring hail to the high plains of Colorado traditionally reach their peak in May and June, but this spring they have hardly been heard.
And government climatologists are trying to figure out how rising temperatures will affect the size and frequency of hail in the future. They observe one thing: variability. Between 2017 and 2019, numerous severe hailstorms hit the state. After 2020, there were relatively few of them.
“The data shows a big upward trend in places where the population has grown a lot, like El Paso County, but not so much in areas where the population hasn’t changed much. And even if someone out there sees it, the hail is hard to accurately measure because it melts pretty quickly,” said state climatologist Russ Schumacher. “So it’s very difficult to say how much of these trends are real changes or just based on more people seeing the cheer and submitting reports.”
Historical records show that hail that strips crops and crushes cars wreaks havoc as early as April and even into October.
The eastern half of Colorado fits into a “hail alley” between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and western Kansas, extending north through Nebraska and south through Oklahoma, an area prone to severe hail storms.
And over the past decade, hail has caused more than $5 billion in damage in Colorado, according to data compiled by the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association industry group. Insurance industry officials say nearly half of homeowners’ insurance premiums are used to pay for hail and wind damage.
Nationwide, hail damage claims filed by Americans increased by about 2% between 2018 and 2020, when 2.63 million claims were filed, according to the National Crime Insurance Bureau.
Colorado ranked second among all states in the number of hail damage claims filed during this period, with 312,808 claims for payment after 605,866 claims filed in Texas.
Typically, two or three large hailstorms hit Colorado every year, each causing $25 million or more in damage, industry officials say.
However, the largest hail has historically fallen elsewhere. According to weather records, the largest recorded hail – 8 inches in diameter and weighing 1.94 pounds – was found in Vivian, South Dakota (pop. 98) on July 23, 2010. The largest in Colorado – 4.83 inches in diameter – fell in Bethune on August 13, 2019.
Anywhere in the high plains of Colorado, heavy hail and destruction can occur. The state’s highlands favor large hail because when hail forms in the cold air above it is not far enough to fall and melt before it hits the ground.
When hail hits rural areas, which is very depressing for farmers, government agencies often don’t know much about it because eastern Colorado is sparsely populated.
For farmers, small hail, blown by the wind, causing damage to corn and other crops, is the most damaging. Larger hail damages livestock and damages buildings and vehicles.
City hail, meanwhile, makes the TV news, showing piles of icy white pellets on the roads.
On July 30, 1979, a hailstorm killed a child at Fort Collins, according to weather reports. And heavy hail hit Denver and Colorado Springs in 2017 and 2018.
Recent studies show that large hail may fall more frequently as average temperatures tend to rise. But climatologists have said they are not sure how warming will occur.
This week and next, National Weather Service meteorologists said a relatively dry spring will give way to summer with regular daytime storms.
“It’s been pretty quiet so far,” NWS meteorologist David Barjenbruch said.
“The bad news is that we need moisture from thunderstorms. ….. rain, but not dry lightning,” Barjenbruch said. “Lightning causes forest fires. ….. It is too early to tell whether this will save us from any significant drought.”