Documentary explores Alberta’s status as world capital of destructive hail

By Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald August 2, 2013 8:09 AM

Call it the silver lining on some very dark clouds.

Documentary filmmaker Larry Day says one of the unexpected bonuses of studying central Alberta’s unfortunate status as the world’s worst spot for hail and hail damage is that he now tends to look up at the sky more often than he once did.

“I really started watching the skies because I had learned something about cloud patterns,” says Day, in an interview from his Calgary office. “This doesn’t really have anything to do with the science, but what I noticed, and maybe other Albertans have noticed before, is how beautiful and spectacular our skies are in Alberta, almost every day. It’s very pretty on the ground. But if you look at the sky, it is unbelievable.”

Day, who is also president of Calgary’s Pyramid Productions, offers plenty of darkly beautiful skies in his hour-long TV-documentary When Hail Attacks, which airs Saturday on CBC in Alberta. Some of the more startling images are time-lapse sequences that show dark clouds sweeping over the land like some sort of evil being from a Harry Potter movie.

It goes a long way in showing Alberta’s strange relationship with Mother Nature’s severe mood swings, particularly when she decides to assail Alberta with baseball-sized hail stones. Day’s documentary is rife with home videos taken by locals, who watch hail storms wreak havoc on their homes, automobiles and gardens with a mixture of fascination and horror. Many of them were chronicling the carnage from last August’s ferocious storm, which alone cost $530-million in insurance claims.

“We loved the home videos,” says Day. “It had that real, shaky-camera feel to it. People were caught right in the middle of something. So they were excited. Sometimes they were scared. This brought some real human drama to it.”

By while hail may be intriguing, it is also devastating to many Albertans. Day first became interested in the topic when he heard of Alberta’s hail-suppression project, where pilots fly straight into storms to seed clouds with silver iodide to help either reduce the size of the hail stones or turn them into rain.

That alone sounds like the makings of an extreme reality-TV series. But the more Day investigated hail, the more he realized that dealing with its after effects has become a fairly universal story for Albertans, particularly those who live in central Alberta’s so-called “hail alley.”

“It hails more in Alberta than any other place it the world, which really surprised me,” says Day. “It costs the province about $1 billion a year in damage, which is really pretty big. When you think we had a flood a few weeks ago and we’re thinking that’s maybe $3-billion and we’re describing that as the biggest flood in 100 years or more. Well we have a third of that cost every year on average from hail. On average, hail causes more damage than any other extreme weather, including hurricanes or tornadoes or floods. When we started working on it, we discovered everybody has a hail story.”

But When Hail Attacks is not just about giddy storm-watching and weather anecdotes. The film looks at the science behind why it hails so much here (It has to do with hot summers, the Rockies and high altitude). It looks at the long-term costs hail has had on farming in Alberta, including rising insurance premiums. And finally, it looks at the strange process of cloud-seeding, which is not without its controversy. The Alberta Severe Weather Management Society contracts American-based Weather Modification Inc. to seed severe weather clouds in Alberta. It’s funded by Alberta insurance companies in the hopes of reducing hail-damage claims. The pilots and others behind the process are in favour, as are many of the farmers who wish the program would be extended into rural areas. But at least one scientist interviewed in the film said it’s a pointless exercise. Others, including a First Nations leader and an environmentalist, question the wisdom of messing with Mother Nature at all.

The film itself doesn’t come out for or against the process. Nor does it delve too deeply into climate change, a topic that will inevitably arise during any discussion about severe weather.

“Are we getting more?” says Day. “It seems like we are getting a little bit more extreme weather in Alberta and maybe across North America. That’s our impression. You can have statisticians on both sides of this argument saying that it’s not clear and that we’ve always had extreme weather. Our impression is it’s getting a little bit more common. It seems to go in spurts in certain areas.”

Still, the film maintains a fairly diplomatic tone. Unlike many documentaries, it’s not meant to be a cautionary tale, Day says.

“Our whole idea is to put some information out there, maybe spark some debate and maybe let people explore further,” he says.

When Hail Attacks airs Saturday on CBC at 7 p.m.

[email protected]

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald