After a successful launch last year, the Northern Hail Project (NHP) is back and it’s bigger, much bigger, which is key when the objective is tracking down record-breaking hailstones in Canada’s western provinces.
Led by executive director Julian Brimelow and field coordinators Simon Eng and Devon Healey, the NHP investigation team has grown from three to 10 researchers this year, including Western engineers, meteorologists and summer interns.
With hail season already ramping up, the team has successfully completed the installation of 19 hail disdrometers – all accompanied by weather stations – within Calgary city limits, with an additional one in Airdrie, just north of the city.
“This is not your basic hobby weather station. These stations record everything including wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, pressure, temperature, humidity, even the number of lightning strikes in the vicinity,” said Brimelow. “But the real value of these weather stations is the wind measurements because wind and hail are a really bad combination, as we found with the Calgary hailstorm in 2020.”
Western’s Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), which financially supports NHP and plays a role as a major research partner, estimates the insurable damage of the June 2020 hailstorm that tore through Calgary’s northeast communities at $1.2 billion.
“As frightening as the 2020 hailstorm’s $1.2 billion impact, that was a glancing blow. A direct hit on Calgary could cost $10 billion. If we continue to build as we have, that kind of loss is virtually inevitable,” said Keith Porter, ICLR chief engineer. “Thanks in part to hail meteorology research, we know that society would be much better off if we built new houses with impact-resistant roofing, or at least repaired its damaged roofs with impact-resistant roofing.”
Porter suggests impact-resistant roofing would cost a little more up front but would save far more money than the added cost in the long run – up to eight times the added cost of the impact-resistant roofing.
“As long as the building code does not require impact-resistant roofing in high-hail-hazard locations, for every $1 we save in lower-upfront costs, society ends up paying up to $8 in future losses,” said Porter.
Based in part on NHP findings, ICLR supported an Alberta building official to introduce a code change request to require smarter, more resilient roofing where it makes the most financial sense.
A Canada first
The new citywide meso-network in Calgary will provide unparalleled data to the NHP team as the researchers seek to improve knowledge of damaging hailstorms while increasing detection of hail occurrence in one of the country’s most populous areas.
“There is absolutely nothing like this in Canada,” said Brimelow. “They have something similar in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas and another one in Switzerland but its only focus is hail. The network in Calgary is far more robust. The amount of data we will be able to collect and mine, for years to come, will be unprecedented.”
Brimelow said Calgary is the ideal location for the NHP weather station network and said the meticulous and comprehensive installation of the network (including everything from permissions to location selection) would not have been possible without city administration, specifically some key departments like Water Services and the Calgary Fire Department.
“Calgary is a really interesting city, and very unique in terms of topography,” said Brimelow. “There is a lot of relief and quirks with the city design. The high-resolution data, both spatial and temporal, we collect will also be invaluable for city officials, planners, builders and insurers in terms of water management and flooding alerts.”
Brimelow is not wrong as city officials strongly agree.
“This technology is going to be invaluable for us because of the data it will provide, which will supplement our existing rain gauge network data to provide a much better understanding of how hailstorms develop and move in our region,” said Sandy Davis, River Engineering Team Lead, The City of Calgary. “Ultimately, we hope it will enable us to create better regulations as well as possibly warning systems, to help us better adapt to these events as a society, as well as helping inform our infrastructure response teams.”
Hunting the next record breaker
Beyond the extensive work in the city, NHP is also constructing more than 50 hailpads – up from 30 last year – on farms systematically staggered across the province, running approximately 75 kilometres north to south towards Calgary from Caroline (just southwest of Red Deer) to Bottrel (northwest of Calgary).
A hailpad, used to collect data on the size distribution of hailstones, is a foam panel covered with white latex paint and set in a frame that is attached to a fence post. Hail that hits the pad leaves a dent and the resulting dimensions are analyzed by researchers to reconstruct the hail event.
Brimelow and the team are also testing new technology, which they hope will assist in capturing what actually happens during a hailstorm. Seven hail disdrometer stations have also been deployed in the vicinity of the hailpad network. Three of these have been selected as “supersites” as they have been equipped with a hailpad and, perhaps more importantly, a motion-triggered trail camera.
“It’s a new technology for us but I think it’s really promising,” said Brimelow. “We want to see if hail will trigger the motion sensors mounted on these cameras facing the ground. If it works as predicted, it could be a real game-changer in terms of the remote detection of hail.”
And that’s saying something as NHP recovered a Canadian record-breaking hailstone following a storm on Aug. 1, 2022 near Markerville, Alta. The record-breaker weighs 292.71 grams, eclipsing the previous title holder – a hailstone weighing 290 grams, collected nearly 50 years ago in Cedoux, Sask. on July 31, 1973.
NHP is a research spinoff of the Northern Tornadoes Project, which was founded in 2017 with support from social impact fund ImpactWX.