A rare ice phenomenon freaked out some Delta, B.C. residents on Friday May 22, and for good reason: ice chunks the size of volleyballs fell out of a perfectly blue sky, with not a cloud in sight.
The story starts like this:
Chris Drab was mowing his lawn last Friday evening when he heard what he described as a “thundering, whooshing noise.” He looked up to see a large chunk of ice falling out of the sky, which was followed by five more in about 30 seconds.
News reports say the RCMP confirmed that at least one chunk of ice crashed through a house’s rooftop and caused $15,000 of damage. David Jones, a warning preparedness meterologist with Environment Canada, was quoted as saying he thought the ice probably fell from an aircraft. (The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Province, Victoria Times Colonist and Global News ran an identical story on this from Wednesday – Friday last week)
Taking the lead from these articles, I called David Jones and learned that might be something more complicated – and more dangerous – than AWOL aircraft liquids dropping here and there over the continent.
Jones says he initially thought the ice had likely fallen from an aircraft, but then he learned about a Spanish scientist researching ice crystals that form in the stratosphere. “Until last week I had never heard of it,” he says, “and I would say that most meteorologists in the country had probably never heard of it. We deal with events that happen in the troposphere, so it’s not something that we study.” (The troposphere is the atmospheric layer closest to earth, where most of what we chattily call “weather” happens.)
Jesus Martinez-Frias, who works at the Centre for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain, has been researching the phenomenon of ice falling from clear skies – as opposed to hailstones falling from clouds – since the year 2000.
Martinez-Frias’ website — http://tierra.rediris.es/megacryometeors — posits that since the troposphere has been retaining more moisture as it warms up, the stratosphere may be cooling and becoming more turbulent in response. To quote his site:
Tropospheric Global Warming … might be making the tropopause colder, moister and more turbulent, creating conditions in which ice crystals could grow, forming, unusually and much more recurrently, large ice conglomerations.
Here are some images from the megacryometeor site, looking pretty scary to me because apparently there’s no way to anticipate when something like this will fall from the sky.
Elsewhere on the site, Martinez-Frias states:
At present, no model is able to satisfactorily explain what factors cause the ice nucleation and growth, or how these unusually large ice blocks can be actually formed and maintained in the atmosphere.
Hmmm. Not too comforting. I suppose it’s somewhat like knowing that the earth is orbited by hundreds of pieces of space junk, which can and do crash to earth – or into aircraft – without warning at any given moment. Except in this case the phenomenon might be due to climate change, so it would be worth asking whether it’s a preventable problem, or if it’s a problem at all.
I asked Jones if he thought people should learn to be on the lookout for megacryometeors, or whether Environment Canada or a research institute should be developing instruments to track the formation of these potentially lethal ice crystals.
“It’s clear that this scientist has done a lot of research, so he must have reasons for calling it a ‘dramatic increase'” Jones said, “but if there have been 100 cases in the past 50 years, it doesn’t look like something we should worry about. There would be no way to track their formation, and if you think about it, most of the earth is covered with water so these objects would probably be falling into the ocean.”
Jones said that Environment Canada asked Chris Drab to keep the mysterious ice stored in case they can find someone to analyze it and compare it to other types of unidentified ice that have fallen from the sky.
But I neglected to ask if an increase in megacryometeors might just turn sun-bathing into an extreme sport.
ch more recurrently, large ice conglomerations.