The Ice is Falling! The Ice is Falling!

Photo: Creative RF / Flavio Vallenari / Getty Images

For centuries, mysterious falls of large chunks of ice have rained down on the Earth. Where do they come from? What is the explanation?

On December 17, 2015, a football-sized chunk of ice fell from the sky, injuring a 60-year-old woman in India. Although authorities suspected that it dropped from a plane passing overhead, that source was never proved.

Every few month there seems to be a news report from somewhere in the world where balls or blocks of ice -- some of them quite large -- fall mysteriously from the sky.

And it's been happening for centuries.

The year 2000 was a particularly busy year for these ice falls. On the evening of January 27, 2000, priests at the Salesian monastery in L'Aquila, Italy were startled by a loud crash. Investigating the noise, they discovered a large chunk of ice on their patio, largely intact. Determining that it could not have slipped off their roof and at a loss to explain just where it came from, they called the police. Upon examination, the block of ice weighed in at 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) and no source was determined.

On the same day, about 100 miles northeast in Ancona, Itlay, the local magistrate was called to investigate the report of a man who was struck on the head by a 1 kilogram (2.2 pound) chunk of ice that apparently fell from the sky.

Meanwhile, about 100 miles southeast of L'Aquila, another similar mysterious block of ice fell in Avellino, Italy.

And as if these occurrences weren't odd enough, they follow a very similar wave of unexplained ice falls that took place in Spain earlier in January, 2000.

Although officials tried to explain away the ice as falling from airplanes or as the result of weird weather, chemical analysis of the ice has been unable to prove anything definitively.

The Rain (of Ice) in Spain

Within a 10-day period beginning on January 8, 2000, more than a dozen large chunks of ice fell in various locations around Spain -- some reportedly as big as basketballs and weighing as much as 9 pounds!

The phenomenon hasn't been just puzzling to scientists, it's been downright dangerous to citizens. Juana Sanchez Sanchez, a 70-year-old woman in Almeria, southern Spain, was knocked unconscious when she was struck in the shoulder by a falling ice chunk as she walked in a street near her home. On January 12, just about 200 miles away in Seville, a man narrowly escaped serious injury when a 9-pound ball of ice smashed into his car.

The Scientific Analysis

Although eyewitnesses to the phenomenon report that they did not see anything in the sky that could account for the ice, investigating scientists had to come up with a rationalization. The first explanation they offered was that it might be frozen waste jettisoned from overflying aircraft. Analysis of the ice in both Spain and Italy concluded, however, that the ice lacked the coloring and microorganisms that would be present in jet waste.

Pranksters were responsible for some of the iceballs recovered in both countries. This ice, thrown into the streets by youths and in one case by a grocery store owner after hearing of the genuine ice falls, was easily identified for what it was and discounted.

In Italy, scientific analysis of the mystery ice from Avellino "has proven that the block consists of a liquid similar to distilled water; in other words, lacking any mineral salts whatsoever, and with traces of ammonia and nitrates."

Professor Jesus Martinez Frias, the geologist investigating the ice falls in Spain, told BBC News, "The most surprised person of all by this phenomenon is me." His preliminary examination of the ice revealed that it appeared to be nearly 100 percent frozen water. After further analysis, Martinez told a packed news conference that the ice pieces had probably been formed through sudden temperature drops in the stratosphere. This was the most likely explanation, he said, for the "very unusual" phenomenon, and that similar cases had been reported in China and Brazil in 1995 where blocks as heavy as 440 pounds crashed to Earth.

Another Spanish scientist, Professor Fernando Lopez from Madrid's Autonomous University, questioned these conclusions. He could not rationalize how such large chucks of ice could be formed in the stratosphere where there is very little moisture.

And even if they could form there, how could a block weighing as much as 9 pounds remain suspended long enough to grow that large?

Next page: Incredible Ice Falls in History; Possible Explanations

A History of Ice Falls

Mysterious ice falls have been reported in many parts of the world for centuries -- many before the invention of flying machines. Here are some of the most extraordinary examples of documented ice falls:

  • In the late 1700s, a gargantuan chuck of ice "as big as an elephant" was said to fall on Seringapatam, India, and took three days to melt.
  • In 1802, a lump of ice fell from the sky on Hungary that had a volume of 18 cubic feet!
  • In 1849, a block of ice that was estimated to weigh a half a ton fell on the Balvullich farm in Ord, Scotland. It measured about 20 feet in diameter and was reported to be crystal clear, although apparently made up of many cubes and diamond-shaped hunks of ice fused together.
  • Another ice fall took place in Scotland in December of 1950. A man driving near the town of Dumbarton was nearly struck by a rain of ice that crashed down onto the road. A subsequent police investigation weighed the collected ice at 112 pounds. Several other reports of ice falls were recorded in Great Britain in 1950 and 1951.
  • A carpenter working on a roof in Kempton, West Germany in 1951 was struck and killed by a 6-foot long, 6-inch around rod of solid ice.
  • Farmer Edwin Groff of Bernville, Pennsylvania was witness to a 50-pound, white globe of ice that whooshed through the sky and crashed on his property in 1957. A few seconds later, a second ball of ice, half the size of the first, smashed into his flower bed, just a few yards from where he was standing.
  • On September 2, 1958, Dominick Bacigalupo was knocked from his feet when a 70-pound ball of ice tore through his roof and attic and broke into three pieces on his kitchen floor.
  • The roof of the Phillips Petroleum Plant in Woods Cross, Utah was punctured by a 50-pound block of ice in 1965.
  • One well-documented ice fall was actually witnessed by a British meteorologist in 1973. While standing on a street corner in Manchester, R.F. Griffiths saw a huge chunk of ice smash to pieces on the road just 10 feet away. The largest piece, which he recovered, weighed 3-1/2 pounds.
  • A football-sized chunk of ice landed in a garden near Lake Vattern, Sweden in 1990. It was described as being somewhat milky in appearance, dotted with bits of debris colored gray, brown, and lilac.
  • A year later, in October 1991, a 20-pound mass of ice smashed through the roof of the home of Mrs. Mavis Anderson in West Yorkshire, England, landing in her kitchen.
  • In 1992, a sphere of yellow-tinged ice crashed through the roof of a factory in Salihli, Turkey. Witnesses said the ice released the odor of rotting fruit as it melted. This sounds like a candidate for airplane waste, but officials determined there were no planes flying in the area at the time.

Possible Explanations

There are four possible, but not equally plausible, explanations for these puzzling ice falls:

Airplane ice. Undoubtedly, some small pieces of ice must fall from the wings of airplanes. Today's aircraft, however, have heating devices that de-ice the wings before any significant buildup can occur. Certainly, chunks of ice of the size that have been reported are highly unlikely. As mentioned above, analysis of recovered ice has also ruled out the possibility of ejected waste from airplanes.

Weird weather. Hail is a relatively uncommon weather event, and large hailstones are rarer still.

The largest hailstones recorded have been about 5 inches in diameter with a maximum weight of about 2 pounds. Such large hailstones can only be formed in violent thunderstorms. An updraft of 90 mph or stronger is needed to create a hailstone the size of a baseball. The problem with this explanation for the incidents cited above is that usually just one or two large chunks of ice fall from the sky, and there is no report of a storm of any kind. In fact, many ice falls seem to come from a clear and cloudless sky.

Comets. Comets are composed of ice and dust and it's theoretically possible that small comets could enter the Earth's atmosphere and strike the Earth before exploding or completely melting. In fact, some scientists theorize that the Earth's oceans were created by comets raining down on our young planet.

Professor Martinez, investigating the falls in Spain, said that the ice falls are too scattered and infrequent to be pieces of comet tails. Also, he said, they should have been large enough when entering the Earth's atmosphere to register on radar screens, which they didn't.

UFOs. Inevitably, somebody in the UFO community suggests that extraterrestrial craft are somehow responsible. Are they suggesting that space-trekking vehicles do not have as sophisticated de-icing devices as our aircraft do? Or that the ice was discarded from the flying saucers after some wild, onboard Pleidian party? Or, as Italian UFOlogist Eufemio Del Buono stated in reference to the ice falls in his country, are they "a warning from extraterrestrial intelligences"?

The fact is, no one knows for certain where this ice comes from or how it is formed. For now, it is just one more Earth mystery.