People will go to any length for a little bit of internet fame, like setting your crotch on fire, jumping off a building, or planking on train tracks. Thankfully, there are less painful ways to achieve notoriety: lie through your teeth! Some sorry individual froze a water balloon yesterday and tried to pass it off as hail.

Can you tell which of these two photos is fake?

Neither of ‘em! These are photos of baseball-size hail produced by supercells this past weekend. For those of us outside of the central United States (or Bangladesh), it’s hard to imagine that a storm can produce hail this large.

Hail forms when raindrops are suspended in a thunderstorm by its updraft, freezing in the cold air in the mid-levels of the storm. Layers of water freeze onto the newly-formed hailstone, growing in layers like a dangerous sky onion. The hail stays aloft until it falls out of the influence of the updraft, the updraft weakens, or the hail simply grows too large for the updraft to support.

Most hail is small and nothing more than a noisy nuisance, but some of the stones can grow enormous. Strong supercells in a favorable environment can easily support hail up to the size of softballs, destroying vehicles, piercing through walls and roofs with ease, and gashing craters in the ground.

Large hail is usually spiky and jagged—here’s a photo of the largest hailstone ever recorded, which fell in Vivian, South Dakota, on July 23, 2010. The stone was eight inches in diameter, which is just half an inch smaller than the diameter of a bowling ball.

Now, look at that spiked behemoth and compare it to the picture of “hail” spreading through Facebook like wildfire:


This happens several times every year, and every time someone pulls it off, the photo gets tens of thousands of likes and shares on Facebook, just as it’s designed to do. Fake weather photos can spread around the world twice before weather geeks have a chance to turn on their computers.

The individual who made this fake ol’ hailstone would have made a more convincing ball of ice if they sprayed water on a Koosh ball. They likely filled a water balloon and put it in their freezer, waiting for the opportunity to pass it off as the real deal.

Let’s go over some of the ways in which we know this is bull:

1) The hailstone is perfectly round and smooth. Look at that bowling-ball-size hailstone above, and compare it to the baby’s butt in this person’s hand. Ain’t no way.

2) Look near the person’s right thumb—you can see the flattened part of the ice where the water balloon was sitting on a surface in the freezer.

3) There’s condensation and frost on the outside of the hailstone, which shows that it just recently came in contact with warm air outside, never came in contact with rain, and never impacted the ground. Hailstones all experience some level of melting while they fall and after they hit the ground, and hail is almost always accompanied by rain.

4) There’s no dirt on it. Or dirt on the person’s hand, except under that one nail (ew).

If it’s too wild to be true...

As with everything, one of the biggest rules in looking at weather reports on social media is that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. It’s pretty easy to fake a hail or tornado picture these days; the number of tornado pictures online makes it hard for you to verify if you’re looking at a picture taken today or 15 years ago.

If you use Google Chrome, your first line of defense against fake/misrepresented pictures is the “Search Google for this image” feature. Right-click on any image and select that option, and it’ll open up a new tab and search that image for you. If you’ve caught someone in the act, it’ll come up with results showing where that picture is from and where it’s been used in the past.

For example, the photograph above is one of the most widely-circulated pictures on the internet, popping up every time there’s a tornado disaster, from Tuscaloosa to Joplin to Moore. Sometimes it’s even portrayed as the eye of a hurricane making landfall (????).

The photo shows a wall cloud and mesocyclone in a powerful supercell that passed through Orchard, Iowa, on the evening of June 10, 2008, as part of a tornado outbreak that killed four Boy Scouts in Little Sioux, Iowa. The ominous lowering doesn’t actually reach the ground—it’s just a classic example of a wall cloud in a supercell.

When in doubt, use Google Image search. If you still can’t figure it out, do some searching on Twitter and see if meteorologists are making fun of the picture. If they are, odds are it’s fake.

[Images: Jeff Piotrowski and Adrian Linares via Twitter, NOAA, Snopes]

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