Hail is a form of solid precipitation. It consists of balls or irregular lumps of ice, each of which is called a hailstone. Hailstones consist mostly of water ice and measure between 5 millimetres (0.20 in) and 15 centimetres (6 in) in diameter. Hail is possible within most thunderstorms as it is produced by cumulonimbi. Hail formation requires environments of strong, upward motion of air with the parent thunderstorm (similar to tornadoes) and lowered heights of the freezing level. In the mid-latitudes, hail forms near the interiors of continents, while in the tropics, it tends to be confined to high elevations.
Hailstones generally fall at higher speeds as they grow in size, though complicating factors such as melting, friction with air, wind, and interaction with rain and other hailstones can slow their descent through Earth’s atmosphere. Severe weather warnings are issued for hail when the stones reach a damaging size, as it can cause serious damage to human-made structures such as roofs, siding, windows and many other building materials. Hailstones are layered and can be irregular and clumped together. Hail is composed of transparent ice or alternating layers of transparent and translucent ice at least 1 millimetre (0.039 in) thick, which are deposited upon the hailstone as it travels through the cloud, suspended aloft by air with strong upward motion until its weight overcomes the updraft and falls to the ground.
Although the diameter of hail is varied, in the United States, the average observation of damaging hail is between 2.5 cm (1 in) and golf ball-sized. Stones larger than 2 cm (0.80 in) are usually considered large enough to cause damage. Hailstones can be very large or very small, depending on how strong the updraft is: weaker hailstorms produce smaller hailstones than stronger hailstorms.
Like other precipitation in cumulonimbus clouds hail begins as water droplets. As the droplets rise and the temperature goes below freezing, they become super cooled water and will freeze on contact with condensation nuclei. A cross-section through a large hailstone shows an onion-like structure. This means the hailstone is made of thick and translucent layers, alternating with layers that are thin, white and opaque. Should the hailstone move into an area where mostly water vapour is available, it acquires a layer of opaque white ice.
Furthermore, the hailstone’s speed depends on its position in the cloud’s updraft and its mass. This determines the varying thicknesses of the layers of the hailstone. The accretion rate of super cooled water droplets onto the hailstone depends on the relative velocities between these water droplets and the hailstone itself. This means that generally the larger hailstones will form some distance from the stronger updraft where they can pass more time growing. As the hailstone grows it releases latent heat, which keeps its exterior in a liquid phase. Because it undergoes ‘wet growth’, the outer layer is sticky, or more adhesive, so a single hailstone may grow by collision with other smaller hailstones, forming a larger entity with an irregular shape.
The hailstone will keep rising in the thunderstorm until its mass can no longer be supported by the updraft. This may take at least 30 minutes based on the force of the updrafts in the hail-producing thunderstorm, whose top is usually greater than 10 km high. It then falls toward the ground while continuing to grow, based on the same processes, until it leaves the cloud. It will later begin to melt as it passes into air above freezing temperature.
Narrow zones where hail accumulates on the ground in association with thunderstorm activity are known as hail streaks or hail swaths, which can be detectable by satellite after the storms pass by. Hailstorms normally last from a few minutes up to 15 minutes in duration. Accumulating hail storms can blanket the ground with over 2 inches (5.1 cm) of hail, cause thousands to lose power, and bring down many trees. Flash flooding and mudslides within areas of steep terrain can be a concern with accumulating hail. Accumulated hail can also cause flooding by blocking drains, and hail can be carried in the floodwater, turning into a snow like slush which is deposited at lower elevations.