New ‘disdrometers’ in Calgary will help forecast the next big hailstorm

A new network of hail-sensing weather stations has been installed in Calgary.

Nineteen hail disdrometers are now in operation across the Calgary area, giving a research team from Western University nearly unparalleled access to weather data that will help them better understand and forecast dangerous hailstorms.

“It’s definitely the first in Canada and one of a handful around the globe,” said Northern Hail Project (NHP) executive director Julian Brimelow during a demonstration of the new system.

“It’s a very exciting time to be doing hail research. We’re a bit like kids at Christmas with all the technology we have at our disposal.”

Disdrometers come in the form of small round steel plates installed to face the sky and use acoustic sensing akin to a microphone to measure the number and size of hailstone strikes during a storm.


A plastic model of the largest hailstone ever found in Canada sits beside a Samsung Galaxy S23 for scale. (Connor O'Donovan)

Alongside each disdrometer, the team has installed a weather station capable of tracking factors like temperature, wind speed and direction, precipitation, and humidity to help better understand conditions before and during hailstorms.

The data can then be transmitted autonomously to the NHP team over a cellular network. The team says the information gathered, which will also be released publicly, will shine light on a hazard that was, until now, considered understudied in Canada.

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“The last dedicated research on hail in Canada was through the Alberta Hail Project that occurred from [1956] to the 1980s,” says NHP Research Meteorologist Simon Eng.

“Hail is a very high-cost hazard and we haven’t really been documenting it properly in the past few years.”

That information, which could help forecasters better predict the number and intensity of hailstorms in a region, will be particularly valuable for the insurance industry.

According to the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), hailstorms have caused roughly $9.5 billion in insured damages since 2008.

“Hail is kind of a sleeper hazard. Not many people talk about it I think because only parts of the country have seen really big storms. But it causes a lot of damage,” says ICLR Managing Director Glenn McGillivry, who hopes the research can help guide ICLR’s push for more protective building code and construction practices.

“We’re going to determine if we can pull out any trends from this.”

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This multispectral image sensor attached to a drone allows the NHP to capture visual and thermal imaging of hail swaths from the skies. (Connor O'Donovan)

The disdrometers are just the latest hail-tracking tool in the NHP’s arsenal.

The team also uses drones to capture visual and thermal imagery, an array of foam “hail pads” set up north of Calgary, teams of hail-chasing professionals who gather hailstones after a storm hits, as well as news and social media reports of hailstones and ensuing damage.

Related: See what large hail can do to a car

Header image: File photo (Pixabay/Laura Palner)