The science behind hail on Southern California beaches

Hail covers the beach north of the Huntington Beach Pier on Monday morning.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

So what is the science behind the hail that fell Monday on some Southern California beaches?

Pea-sized hail coated miles of sand in Huntington Beach just before 11 a.m. as thunderstorms lingered for about 30 minutes. Hail nearly an inch deep blanketed the beach town, sparking a flurry of interest on social media as beachgoers snapped photos in the hail and surfers scaled patches of ice off their surfboards.

The unusual event — which extended from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to El Cajon — was a rare treat for Southern California after having one of the warmest Februarys on record.

“The reason it seems so spectacular is because it’s been so warm,” said William Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The same warm weather created Monday’s winter wonderland.

Two cold, low-pressure systems from Oregon swept down the spine of the Sierra Nevada and swooped into Southern California, Patzert said. When the cold air met warm temperatures, it created a volatile situation, he said.


The unstable and disorganized weather pattern resulted in hail in Orange County, waterspouts on Sunday in Los Angeles County and scattered showers with some communities receiving 4 inches of rain.

“This is a schizophrenic storm,” Patzert said.

By midafternoon, the ice had melted and the beach was returned to its normal state.

Though the icy weather was brief, Steven Bowen, who lives off Pacific Coast Highway, said it was unlike anything he had seen before in Orange County.

Bowen was walking to his neighborhood gym when it started raining, and then came the hail.

“Instead of going to the gym, I just decided to play on the beach and called my friends who work downtown to come join the fun,” he said.

Bowen and his friends gathered for an impromptu photo shoot and snapped photographs of themselves running on the beach, on the pier and under the boardwalk.

“It was such a great experience and I’m glad I got to share it with my friends,” he said.

In other parts of the Southland, dangerous lightning also triggered a warning from the National Weather Service, and lifeguards with the Los Angeles County Fire Department urged people to stay away from the beach.

Hail also covered streets and cars on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, just missing the coast.

“You never know what weather is going to do,” said A.J. Lester, an ocean lifeguard specialist with Los Angeles County’s lifeguard unit.

Hail occurs every year or two in Southern California but usually inland and rarely touches the coast, said meteorologist James Thomas of the National Weather Service in San Diego.

The storm is expected to move out of the area Tuesday and Patzert said Southern California temperatures should climb back into the 80s by the weekend.

“We’ll be in our flip-flops and be in our shorts, and the excitement of this week will be a fading memory,” he said.

For more California news, follow @VeronicaRochaLA.