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Super sized hail in Southern Italy

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WWF-Norway’s researcher, Stefano Esposito, visited his hometown in southern Italy during the summer holidays, when he encountered some extraordinary weather!

“Mamma mia”, exclaimed my grandmother shaking her head in puzzlement. “I’ve never seen hailstones like these! Everything is destroyed”, she said.

Massa Lubrense is a municipality located along the beautiful Sorrento coast, in the South of Italy. Here, many families still produce amazingly tasty lemons and olive oil. The landscape is typical of the Mediterranean Sea coastline, with hills covered by olive and lemon trees, the latter always protected by nets. People know that it’s important to protect the trees, especially when they are flowering. Summer storms can be violent, and some hail can fall. Small-sized hail that is, or at least it had been so far.

I remember clearly, when I was a child, that we used to have hail sometimes, maybe once every summer. It was so funny to run out right after the storm, feel the freshness coming from that icy landscape, and quickly try to pick up those small round-shaped hailstones before they melted away. Usually they were 1cm large, or so. But this time the average hailstone was between 4 and 6 cm large. A real bullet.

The hailstones were huge, 4 to 6 cm large on average. The hailstones were huge, 4 to 6 cm large on average.

Caught in the hail storm
That afternoon, on the 21th of July, we were driving with my mother and my 10-year old cousin, not far from home. It all started as a normal summer storm, with heavy rain. Then suddenly we started to hear stones falling on the car, bombarding the metal car body. Luckily that part of the road runs along a small forest of chestnut trees, which offered some shelter. We had no choice but to park there and wait inside the car, while the road became covered with ice and flooded with water. It lasted for almost ten minutes. Mobile phones were not working. We were all staring, worried, at the windscreen bombarded by thick hailstones, waiting for it to break down any second.

“They test it against heavy rocks” my 10-year old cousin exclaimed, like he wanted to reassure himself as well as us. “How do you know that?” I asked smiling. “I’ve seen it on a science TV channel” he replied, but he didn’t seem to be fully convinced that it was enough to be safe.

Then finally the hail stopped, we waited for the water to flow and got home. The neighbour was outside, looking at the roof of his garage.
“Look at that hole, the hail broke the roof” he said. We parked the car. The windscreen was intact, but the whole body car was peppered with holes. In a nearby village, only 2 kilometres from there, 90% of the cars’ windscreens were broken.

The landscape around us was surreal. The fields covered by ice, a refreshing mist and two rainbows in the sky. There is an Italian expression which describes well the feeling: “La quiete dopo la tempesta” – the calm after the storm. It is the title of a poem written in 1829 by Giacomo Leopardi, one of the greatest modern poets.

The majority of green tomatoes, which would have been ripe in a couple of weeks, were lying on the ground together with broken red peppers. The majority of green tomatoes, which would have been ripe in a couple of weeks, were lying on the ground together with broken red peppers.

A scarce harvest in Massa Lubrense this year
As soon as my father arrived, we went out to check the damages in the garden. Fragile plants, like the zucchini, were totally destroyed and the majority of green tomatoes, which would have been ripe in a couple of weeks, were lying on the ground together with broken red peppers. But worst of all, a lot of small olives, which were just starting to grow, went down. It takes almost four months for the olive to become ripe, starting in august and slowly losing water, sugars and acids, and increasing its oil content. But this year, in Massa Lubrense at least, it will be a scarce harvest.

It’s not easy to make the connection between such “icy” events in Massa Lubrense and global warming. We often tend to mix up climate and daily weather: a cold winter, or more heavy rain, doesn’t mean that global warming is not real. We struggle to communicate to people why climate change is a real threat, and not a fantasy, and how it can affect our lives.


More extreme weather to come
In fact, scientific evidence analysed by the IPCC suggests that climate change has led to changes in extreme weather events such as heat waves, record high temperatures and heavy precipitations. While this hail is an isolated case (so far) and doesn’t prove much, IPCC tells us that “it is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe”. The broken windscreens and roofs, the roads flooded with mud and leaves, plants destroyed and all small olives lost are a good example of economic damages due to extreme weather events. As IPCC clearly states, “Economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters have increased”.

In WWF, my colleagues and I work to limit global warming by promoting solutions that, for example, decrease the use of fossil fuels. We want, for instance, that the Norwegian Pension Fund – the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund – stops investing in the most polluting fossil fuels like coal and tar sands, and start investing directly in renewable energy projects like wind and solar power.

On that 21th of July 2014, trapped in the car bombarded by large hailstones, I clearly saw the connection between my work at WWF and the real life out there.


Stefano EspositoStefano Esposito

About the author: Born and raised in the South of Italy, Stefano Esposito is a political scientist with a master in International relations and European  studies from the University of Bologna, which dates back to 1088 AD (the University, not the degree…). After having stayed in Norway two times as an exchange student, he decided to move to Oslo in 2012. Since 2013, he has been working in WWF’s climate and energy team as a researcher in sustainable finance. Long-standing vegetarian, he likes to explore tastes and foods from other cultures. And yes, Norwegian broccoli and potatoes are on the list!

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