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Hailstones bigger than grapefruit pummeled a north Texas town on Friday

The whopper hailstones punched holes through roofs and left craters in the ground

Five-inch hail fell on Burkburnett, Tex., on May 22. (Rick Smith/NWS Norman)
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There’s hail, there’s big hail, and then there’s what fell on Burkburnett, Tex., about 10 miles north of Wichita Falls, on Friday afternoon. Hail topping five inches in diameter crashed like meteors on the town, punching holes through home roofs and leaving craters in the ground.

Officially, the largest recovered stone came in at a whopping 5.33 inches across, roughly the length of an iPhone 6. To put it differently, this hail was wider than many grapefruits and exceeded the diameter of a typical DVD. It weighed in at nearly a pound.

Thunderstorms brought large hailstones to Austin and Burkburnett, Tex., over Memorial Day weekend. (Video: The Washington Post)

Social media images circulated Friday evening of what appeared to be a chunk of ice that took both hands to hold. An 8-year-old recovered one of the whoppers after the storm passed. Another resident compared one of the stones to a softball.

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Confirming a monster hailstone

One of the largest hailstones was first measured by a broadcast meteorologist from a Wichita Falls station, which led to the 5.33-inch value that officially went in the books. Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Norman, Okla., stopped by to investigate the hail while en route to inspect for tornado damage.

“I went down there to survey the tornado tracks and was especially interested in what happened west of Bowie,” Smith said. He said he was skeptical after seeing the photos on social media but was able to confirm what happened.

“I held at least two [five-inch hailstones] in my hand yesterday, so it was legit,” Smith said Sunday. One of the homeowners who found a five-inch hailstone reached out to the National Weather Service via Facebook.

“One of the local [meteorologists] went to their house Friday night at like 10 or 10:30, they measured it, they gave us what we thought was a reliable report … by the time I looked at it yesterday, it had sublimated a bit,” Smith said. Sublimation is the process through which a material transitions directly from solid to gas.

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Damage left by the storm

Areas that experienced the mega hailstorm wound up with significant hail damage to vehicles and structures.

“I visited one home where a four-inch hailstone made it all the way through the bathroom ceiling and onto the bathroom floor,” said Smith. “I was standing in their bathroom looking up at the ceiling.” Insulation can be seen on the stone in a photo he took.

Smith noted a number of residents even reported craters in their yards from the giant hail.

“Smartly, they didn’t run out while the hail was falling. The two five-plus-inch hailstones that I got to see were fairly close together … about a half-mile away."

What impressed Smith the most was the number of large hailstones that were recovered. In hailstorms, the largest stones often fall among a much greater quantity of smaller hailstones. The fact that multiple five-inch stones were retrieved and that damage was so widely reported, at least locally, highlights the impressive nature of the event.

Residents “were giving me a list of other homes that had damage,” Smith said. “There’s no doubt there were more holes in roofs, more hail damage than we even know about. This was not just one five-inch stone, it was probably multiple four to five-inch stones. That kind of hail is rare, but to get that volume of it is incredibly rare.”

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Storms brought tornadoes and destructive winds, as well

Smith also confirmed three weak tornadoes on the survey, but the specifics are still being determined. No damage to structures was reported, however.

“We had a tornado west of Burkburnett, and one east of Burkburnett. And we had … one in Clay County,” in Texas, he explained.

Was it a record?

The hailstone was enormous but fell just shy of an even larger Texas hailstone found almost exactly a year ago. Hail up to 5.5 inches in diameter fell in Wellington in the Texas Panhandle on May 20, 2019.

A 5.5-inch hailstone was also found in Smithville, about an hour southeast of Austin, on March 18, 2018. It came up short of the six-inch stone collected by a storm chaser near Sunray, also in the Texas Panhandle, in June 2010.

Smith said he believes the hail that affected Burkburnett was even bigger than 5.33 inches originally but says there’s no telling how much so, because of melting and the handling of the chunk of ice.

“We’re going to reach out to media partners and staff and talk about how to handle these giant hailstones from a data perspective,” he said. “We were very concerned about ‘how do you handle this?’ You’re not supposed to touch [them] with bare hands. You should put [it in the] freezer in [a] sealed plastic bag … there are lots of things like this. It’s quite likely [this hailstone] could have been much bigger.”

National and international hail records

Officially, the U.S. hail record, and long-standing global record, comes from a hailstone that fell on Vivian, S.D., on July 23, 2010. It measured in at eight inches in diameter and nearly two pounds in weight. Initial reports suggested its spiked protrusions would have brought it to 11 inches across, but fragmentation upon hitting the ground — as well as melting and sublimation due to a power outage while storing it — made a dent in its size.

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Hailstones between 7.1 and 9.3 inches in diameter also fell near Córdoba, Argentina, in 2018. Hailstones over six inches in diameter are increasingly becoming the subject of scientific fascination and study, recently earning their own category title: gargantuan.