The occurence of hail and hail damage in South Africa


The occurence of hail and hail damage in South Africa

Published: 16 October 2015

The occurrence of hail is very much sporadic. For this reason, it is quite difficult in the longer term to predict the possibility of hail at a specific point in time or for a specific area. In the short term, radar and satellite technology can determine the development and movement of hail storms reasonably well, but the predictability is limited to very short periods like minutes up to perhaps an hour or two if it is a very strong developing storm. These short-term predictions may be of value to move, store or safeguard vehicles, animals and other assets, but it is of little value for planting.

The question is, however what can a grain, fruit or vegetable farmer do to limit hail damage or to better manage the effect of hail damage. One of the most important aspects to consider is to determine to risk of hail damage. In other words, how often they occur, the time of the year they happen, as well as the average but specifically maximum intensity of hail and hail damage. It is therefore also very crop specific and the effect of hail on various growth stages of different crops often differs significantly.

How is hail formed? Hail occurs when air rises fast and moisture occurs in the atmosphere beyond freezing levels. This process takes place during strong thunder storm activities or if wind and moisture move up against mountains or mountain ranges. During this process water drops freeze to form hail stones. The hail stones may become bigger when more water drops accumulate around the stone. At some point in time the hail stone becomes too heavy and falls to the earth.

Hail risk areas

The first aspect to consider is to determine where the high-risk hail areas are located in South Africa. Given the discussion around the formation of hail the high-lying areas of the summer rainfall region have the highest occurence of hail as there are many thunder storms due to high energy summer rainfall, which is strengthened by the height above sea level and the mountain ranges. It includes areas that are adjacent to the Drakensberg mountains and other smaller mountain ranges. The eastern Free State, central and western parts of KwaZulu-Natal, the northern parts of the Eastern Cape, as well as parts of Mpumalanga therefore have the highest occurence of hail. Statistics show that there are on average six to eight hail days a year in parts of Lesotho, the eastern Free State, surrounding parts of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as parts of Mpumalanga. The occurence decreases closer to the coastal regions, as well as to the west. Hail storms as a result of the strong upwards movement of air can also occur on relatively flat areas depending on the strength of systems.

The mountain ranges in the southern parts of the country do not cause the same frequency of hail as these ranges are more subject to frontal rainfall and the rising is not as strong. However, there is a misconception that hail does not occur in these regions. Although the frequency of hail is much less some summer rainfall systems move very far south and cause intense hail storms and damage. For example, heavy hail storms with hail stones the size of golf balls in places in Ceres (22 October 1958), Robertson (6 December 1964), in the Swartland and on the West Coast on 3 April 1968 are noted in the archives. In the Southern and Eastern Cape mention is made of large hail storms in the Langkloof and surrounding areas (14 January 1949; 7 December 1964; 14 October 1985 and 12 November 1987). Even though the occurence of hail in the Western Cape is less than one day a year, the intensity of hail storms are still high when they do occur.

From a decision-making point of view a grain, vegetable or fruit producer can therefore do very little to limit hail damage as the growth season determines when crops are exposed to the elements and risks like hail. However, it is important to be aware of the risk and to plan and make decisions accordingly. The question is whether the producer can carry the frequency of hail damage as well as the intensity of damages on his own or whether risk transfer should take place, as in the case of crop insurance. Can the producer recover and continue his operations if damages occur?

This decision is dependent on the exposure to risk and financial position of the producer. For example, the risk of a producer who produces mainly one type of crop is concentrated and he would probably take out insurance whilst another producer who produces more crops that are in the fields at different times of the year would decide not to take out insurance because his risk is spread throughout the year. If a producer can subsidise a large loss from other sources he would probably decide not to take out insurance. 

The most important decision a producer must take is to determine the risk (it can be any risk) and whether they can carry and manage the risk themselves.

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