Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hail of a storm — Pea-sized ice chunks a surprise for drivers, golfers

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When Michael Gangloff bought his Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle in April and took a riding class at the Kenai Peninsula Harley-Davidson store, it prepared him for just about anything the road might throw at him.

Pea-sized hail in September was a surprise, though.

Gangloff was riding home to Sterling from Homer around 4:45 p.m. Friday when a storm front passed over Sterling, spewing torrential rain, pea-sized chunks of ice and thunder and lightning over the Sterling Highway.

The storm didn’t reach downtown Soldotna, but the massive black cloud marring the otherwise sunny fall afternoon sky could be seen from miles away. Even so, Gangloff wasn’t expecting what he was driving into.

“It just started hailing. About a mile up it wasn’t doing this,” Gangloff said.

The weather had been nice all the way up from Homer on Friday. Even when he reached the edge of the storm near the Soldotna Animal Hospital, he didn’t think it would do more than make a soggy ending to an otherwise pleasant ride.

“I didn’t think it would be too bad at first. I thought it was just rain, but it started bouncing up on the road,” he said. “I had my visor open. It was stinging the face pretty good.”

Traffic was picking up at the early end of the workday commute as the rain deluge started reducing visibility. When the hail started rattling car roofs and ricocheting off windshields, vehicles pulled off onto the road shoulder, into parking lots and on side streets to get off the highway.

“When it started I slowed way down. I was probably doing only about 30,” Gangloff said.
The Harley-Davidson store where he bought the bike was in sight, so he pulled under the awning covering the front door and went in for a cup of coffee to wait out the storm before riding the remaining 12 or so miles to his home on Feuding Lane.

“It started getting pretty thick on the road,” he said. “I think it’s going to be pretty slick for a while. I might have to drive with the emergency lights on on the side of the road.”
Gangloff has only been riding since May, so this summer has entailed a lot of firsts for him on his bike. He didn’t think riding through a hailstorm would be one of them.

“I sure didn’t think this was going to happen today. I was actually planning to go to Anchorage tomorrow. It sure don’t seem like it now,” he said.

He said the instructors of the riders safety course he took when he bought the bike covered what to do in inclement weather, even if they didn’t mention hail, specifically.
“More or less,” he said. “Just get out of it.”

Rita Geller and her son, Dan Geller, followed that advice at Birch Ridge Golf Course. They were on the fourth hole when the hailstorm hit.

“We were gonna try and sit it out until we saw lightning,” said Rita Geller, who works in the pro shop at Birch Ridge.

They thought better of walking around an open expanse with metal sticks and took cover in their golf cart. Even under shelter the right side of Rita’s pants still got soaked.

“The cart was fishtailing when we were driving back. It was pretty icy in the fairways,” Rita said.

After 20 minutes the storm passed and the sun was once again peeking out from the clouds, illuminating the greens that now looked like they were covered with a blanket of Styrofoam.

“We tried to putt on the green, but it was too bumpy,” Dan Geller said.

Rita said she only gets her son out to play about three times a year, and put the blame for cutting this game short squarely on her son.

“I was complaining about the heat earlier,” Dan said.

“Yeah, you did it. It was your fault,” Rita said.

Actually, a mix of sunlight and cold was to blame. David Vonderheide, a meteorological technician with the National Weather Service’s forecast office in Anchorage, said a lack of wind, a layer of cool air up above and afternoon sunlight warming moist air down near the ground created air instability.

As the sun warmed moist air near the ground an updraft was created, sucking the moisture up to the layer of freezing cold air above. Big, puffy clouds form, and the moisture freezes into ice pellets. If the updraft is strong enough, the ice is held aloft and collects more moisture, turning into bigger and bigger chunks of ice. When the ice becomes too heavy for the updraft to keep aloft, or if the ice shifts too far from the updraft, it falls back to the ground as hail.

“Gravity takes over and they all just spill out,” Vonderheide said.
He said pea-sized hail would take updraft wind speeds of 30 to 40 miles per hour to form. Some hailstorms can have 80- to 100-mph wind speeds, which can result in chunks of hail as big as grapefruits.

Anchorage has also seen some hail showers in the last few weeks, Vonderheide said.

“It is a little unusual. Usually you get weather like that during May and June,” he said.

Vonderheide chalked it up to the changing of the seasons, since equinox was Monday.
That means winter is not far away. The Kenai Municipal Airport recorded a low of 37 degrees Sunday night, while the Soldotna Airport dipped down to 34 degrees.

“It was kind of a close call this morning for people who forgot to take their plants in,” Vonderheide said Monday. “Probably just a few places got maybe an hour or two of frost. The first real general, regular frost will be coming within the next two weeks, I think.”

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