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article imageStudy: Hailstorms are 'biological events'

By Tim Sandle     Nov 23, 2014 in Science
A study has found that hailstones form around certain biological materials. This presents a new way of thinking about the formation of snow and rain.
The new research put forward the theory that biological material makes hailstones. Hail is a form of solid precipitation, it consists of balls or irregular lumps of ice, each of which is called a hailstone. Hail occurs most frequently within continental interiors at mid-latitudes.
For the study, researchers studies hailstones from three Rocky Mountain storms during 2010 and 2011. After some heavy hailstorms, scientists collected hailstones and stored them in a freezer. The collected hailstones averaged 1.5 inches in diameter.
The scientists then proceeded to analyse 200 hailstones. They found that the hailstones formed around a “biological embryo.” By looking at stable isotopes of water the first finding was that hailstone embryos freeze at relatively warm temperatures, generally above 6.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
The second finding was that active airborne bacteria are involved in the formation of rain and snow over several continents. The third finding, based on an analysis of phosphates, is that the microbial contamination originated on the ground.
The work is important given the damage that hailstorms can cause (for example, large hailstones have been clocked at more than 90 miles per hour.) Knowing the influence of microorganisms and the link to the surface of the Earth builds the knowledge base for predicting the weather and, perhaps, one day controlling it.
The research was supported by the U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Weather Service. The findings have been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. The paper is titled “Biological ice nucleation initiates hailstone formation.”
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