Texas Tech University

Alum Brings Hailstorm Chasing to West Texas

Heidi Toth

May 6, 2015

Meteorologist Ian Giammanco studies hail damage for an insurance nonprofit.

Ian Giammanco
Ian Giammanco

A Texas Tech University alumnus returned to Lubbock this week to hunt hail.

Ian Giammanco was one of eight storm chasers for the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety's (IBHS) 2015 Hail Field Study who landed in Lubbock Wednesday. They'll be in West Texas for a few days first trying to get ahead of storms, and then trying to get out of their way.

Their goal is to learn more about hail's various characteristics so insurers, homeowners and builders can better guard against hail damage, which is a real concern for West Texans.

“We all know that living out here,” said Giammanco, who earned a master's degree in atmospheric science and a doctorate in wind science and engineering from Texas Tech.

It's a different discipline – there aren't a lot of hail chasers in the weather business – but considering the “forgotten hazard” does more than $1 billion to buildings in the United States every year, it's worth a look.

“We want to understand the certain storms that produce certain types of hail,” Giammanco said.

What is the hail field study?

IBHS is a nonprofit organization whose members are insurance companies. Hail damage is a frequent claim on homeowner's and business insurance policies, and the companies holding those policies want to mitigate this damage.

research equipment

The hail field study, which is in its fourth year, is designed to increase the understanding of the different characteristics of hail. Not all hail is created equal – some is slushy, some is almost impossible to break, the sizes and density of the stones vary widely. Giammanco and his team are hoping to figure out what storms produce what types of hail.

To do that, said IHBS public affairs manager Brent Henzi, the team will track a storm in the region and try to get in front of it. Once they are in front of the storm, they'll leave an impact probe, which the IHBS team designed, in the storm's path. This probe measures hail size distributions and the impact of the falling hailstones.

Then the team gets out of the way, the storm comes through and they return to the probe to collect the data. In addition, the scientists measure the hail through the swath of one storm to compare sizes and shapes of stones that have that same source. Hail can get much larger in the course of half a mile, Giammanco said.

All of the data collected in the course of several trips to frequently hailstorm-hit areas like Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas should help them understand what contributes to damaging hail and why hailstones that come from the same storm can be dramatically different in size and density.

In previous years, this project provided enough data to allow them to create hailstones that matched the characteristics of natural hailstones, and they actually created an indoor hailstorm and pelted some roofs and other building materials.

The team

Returning to Texas Tech

Giammanco studied wind and hurricanes during his seven years at Texas Tech, but somehow he got into the hail business.

It turns out the different storms aren't as different as they appear, at least not to a researcher's eye, he said. Creating and placing sensors, gathering data, understanding how storms act and how to predict them all are skills he learned studying tornadoes and hurricanes. He just finished school and applied them to hail instead.

“I got a great multidisciplinary education here,” Giammanco said. “You can take what you learned here and apply it to different problems.”

The most important lesson he learned about storm research is one he's now applying.

“You've got to go to the storm,” he said. “You can't wait for it to come to you.”

Follow the IBHS team's work on Twitter @IBHSHailStudy.