Farming is difficult enough, but lately wine growers around the world – particularly in Europe – have been battered by hail storms.
“Languedoc hit by hail catastrophe” (Gabriel Savage, Drinks Business, 9 July 2014).
Between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of vineyard in the Aude [29,600 to in 37,000 acres] – about a quarter of the department’s total plantings – have been affected by the storm, which lasted for less than half an hour on Sunday afternoon. Among the worst hit areas were appellations around Carcassone, especially Minervois and Corbières, where early reports indicated that 80-100% of vines have been damaged.
“French winegrowers fear for harvest after hail batters prized vineyards” (Anne Penketh, The Guardian, 29 June 2014).
Some of France’s most prestigious vineyards are counting the costs of fierce hailstorms that have battered the Burgundy region for the third consecutive summer. Hail stones as big as golf balls, buffeted by 60 mph winds, swept across the Côte de Beaune region on Saturday afternoon, causing winegrowers to predict between 40% and 80% of the grape harvest would be lost.
The regions hardest hit include Volnay, Meursault and Beaune, home to 2,000 winegrowers. Decanter reports that about 5,000 hectares had been hit, primarily in Pommard and Volnay, with damage estimated in the range of €75 million.
“Médoc properties devastated by hail storms” (Wine Searcher staff, Winesearcher.com, 10 June 2014).
Close to a thousand hectares of Bordeaux vineyards were hit by hailstorms on Sunday night, with the northernmost part of the Médoc, close to the Gironde estuary hardest hit. Vineyards in Cognac were also badly affected by hail and gale-force winds. Parts of Cognac were hit badly in early August last year and an even greater area of Bordeaux was damaged by hailstorms, completely destroying nearly 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of the eastern Gironde, mostly in the Entre-deux-Mers district.
Decanter reports that the storms that hit Bordeaux and Congac during the first half of June cost insurers as much as €900 million ($1.2 billion). Bloomberg News reports that in 2013, insurers paid more than $4 billion as a result of hailstorms. And many growers, particularly in Burgundy, lack insurance.
Oh, the joy of farming in a continental climate. So let’s have a look at hail.
How is hail formed? According to the Texas A&M University Department of Atmospheric Sciences, hail forms when raindrops are lifted up into the atmosphere during a thunderstorm, then super-cooled by sub-freezing temperatures in the upper atmosphere, turning them into ice balls. They can grow and become the size of baseballs or softballs, falling 90 miles per hour and cause immense devastation.
Can we blame climate change? Of course we can, but scientists would urge caution, given that while Burgundy, for example, has been pummeled three years in a row, that is too short an interval to declare that this is a trend – just bad, bad luck. But given a warming world with surface temperatures rising, the effect of more water vapor being carried skyward into the freezing troposphere suggests that more frequent, violent storms are the order of the day. What to do?
“Solutions” in the vein of geo-engineering include cloud seeding with silver-iodide smoke generators and hail cannons. Burgundy has 34 of these smoke generators, which were deployed in June. It’s impossible to measure their success – how could you control for it? Would the hail stones have been larger without it, or more far-reaching? Faith seems to have a lot to do with it.
“Beware the Concussion!”
An older technology than the silver-iodide smoke generator is the hail cannon. Generations ago, French farmers believed that the ringing of church bells would help mitigate damage from hail, so the bells would toll whenever a storm approached. Later, military cannons were used, and in the late 19th century we have the development of the hail cannon. Modern versions are powered with acetylene, and send up a shock wave at 200 miles per hour.
The image of the hail cannon shooting skyward reminds this writer of technology envisioned by H.G. Wells and brought to the screen by producer Alexander Korda and that great stylist William Cameron Menzies as director in the 1936 British science fiction film, Things to Come. The movie was written during a time when the horrors of the “Great War” were still vivid, and the prospect of another was on the horizon — and it shows. The first two-thirds of the movie dealt with impending war and its aftermath.
The last third depicts a wondrous future, full of hope and promise. Scientists and scientific reason provided leadership and salvation for humankind. In the closing moments of the movie, it is the year 2036 and a sculptor foments a Luddite revolt among the people, seeking to stop the firing of a great cannon that is poised to propel the first explorers into space on their way to the moon. Cabal, the leader of the people warns the crowd marching on the space gun intent to destroy it, “Beware the concussion!” Cabal believes nothing should stop scientific progress and he intends to fire it, damn those gathered there to destroy it, who were clearly killed by the immense cloud of smoke and fire produced by the gun on firing. The dialogue in the closing scene as Cabal and Passworthy contemplate what had just happened goes to the root of the meaning of progress and ties it to the meaning of human existence:
Passworthy: Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?
Cabal: Rest enough for the individual man — too much, and too soon — and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.
Passworthy: But… we’re such little creatures. Poor humanity’s so fragile, so weak. Little… little animals.
Cabal: Little animals. If we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?
It’s a bit ironic that the version of “progress” embodied in the hail cannon is, in its way, a step back in time, echoing those church bells — and unfortunately probably as effective. When deployed, the cannons are fired repeatedly, emitting a blast every six seconds to a minute during the course of a storm, sending a sonic boom skyward (imagine, for a moment, the neighbor’s displeasure). Proponents believe that the shock wave generated by the cannons disrupts hail formation, and a single cannon is said to protect 190 acres. We’re picturing a reaction from the neighbors comparable to that of the mob in the Things to Come intent on destroying the thing — or attempting to destroy the owner with lawsuits over the noise.
Unfortunately, no one has been able to prove that the technology works, because results are impossible to quantify. The cannons are available in the United States; One supplier is Newton Systems International; another is Eggers, Ltd in New Zealand. We are not aware of anyone using them in Virginia.
Andrew Jefford writing for Decanter.com reported on a visit to Chateau d’Issan in Margaux. When the vineyard manager Clarisse Branche reported that the property had lost half of its crop to hail in 2008 and 2009, fruit valued at €2 million; the cannon cost them €150,000 (in the United States the cost is in the range of $50,000). Since using it — and they’ve used it 10 times each year since acquiring it — they report having no significant losses.
Another “solution” is a physical one – netting. But to work, they must have a fine mesh, and that blocks sunlight, which is fine in a an arid climate like Mendoza in Argentina (where these nets are commonly used), but in a cooler region like Burgundy would pose a problem. In a recent story on the practice noted (“Burgundy vineyards experiment with anti-hail nets” (Bill Nanson & Wine Searcher staff, Winesearcher.com, 18 July 2014)):
The response of the Burgundy marketing board (BIVB) in Beaune has a certain labyrinthine ring to it, yet is unequivocal: “As their use is not specified in the AOC texts, it is forbidden — in France, for viticulture, if it is not expressly permitted, it is forbidden.”
Here in Virginia we are not immune from hail storms, though mercifully we are not subject to the same forces that create hail events in the plains states of the central United States. We may have an advantage with our humid sub-tropical climate, because the atmosphere may be warm enough that if hail should form, in most cases it will melt before reaching the ground (that said, we found a report of two-inch hail falling in Southampton county on 11 July 2014, and one-inch hail falling in Prince William county the day before that). We have had small incidents of hail damage in years past — torn leaves, a few bruised berries — but nothing on the scale of poor Burgundy, or any of those other French wine growing regions.