The Ice Pack

Aeroplanes here are not just used for carrying passengers but play an important role fighting Mendoza’s main climactic foe – the dreaded hail. Charlie O`Malley takes a look at Mendoza’s unsung heros – the anti-hail squad.

On February 15th 2012, the sky above Lujan de Cuyo darkened.  Argentina´s premier wine growing region and home to its most prestigious wineries was about to experience Mendoza´s version of the locust plague.  People watched black clouds roll in from the Andes and suddenly heard the harsh rattle of hail on car bonnets and roof tiles. Ice stones the size of golf balls rained down in a 25 minute onslaught. The storm cut a destructive path through lush vineyards about to be harvested.  Leaves were mercilessly shredded from the vine and grapes pounded to a messy purple pulp. In less than a half an hour, 4000 hectares were destroyed, 50 houses damaged, 400 people evacuated and 2 people killed, one of them a winemaker. The aftermath was one metre high packed ice on the ground causing flooding and general mayhem. Now who says winemaking is a gentle art?

“Every year Argentina loses 10% of its crop to King Hail”

  Mendoza´s climate is deceptively benign for growing grapes. Constant sunshine, little rain, healthy altitudes and an abundance of melted snow from the Andes are a winemaker’s wet dream.  However that same dream turns into a nightmare when those same mountains help form a unique cloud system that regularly unleashes large rocks of ice over all and sundry.  The problem is compounded by the fact that it usually happens just before harvest time. Southern Mendoza is particularly susceptible and in San Rafael you`ll fine frequent car shelters to take refuge in.

  Every year Argentina loses 10% of its crop to King Hail.  The provincial government and the wineries spend millions protecting the vineyards with limited success. Net protection is the obvious answer but it is prohibitively expensive.  $3000 US per hectare means even the richest wineries can only afford to cover a certain percentage of each crop.  Some don´t bother at all and leave it to fate.  Hail is one of the reasons why Mendoza produces so little single vineyard wines.  It is best to spread your bets and source your grapes from different vineyards dotted all over the province, hoping one at least will be untouched by the dreaded hail.

“Russian made surface-to-air missiles were once shot into any threatening looking clouds”

  As an indication of the problem´s seriousness and perhaps the province´s desperation, Russian made surface-to-air missiles were once shot into any threatening looking clouds.  This was common practice for 18 years before it was decided to refine the system and carry the rockets by plane.

  An hour outside Mendoza is an anti-hail operations centre.  It consists of two airstrips, a radar station and a fleet of four Piper Cheyenne airplanes.  There, Jorge Silva and his team of pilots are on 24-hour alert for hail storms. Meteorologists scan a large computerised map of Mendoza.  Cloud formations dot the screen, colour coded from green to blue.  Grey means its time to scramble and there`s no time to lose. Pilots attack in pairs, one at the base of the clouds and one on top.  They launch flares of silver iodide into the cloud in the hope of reducing the hail to raindrops or snowflakes. Sometimes it works and sometimes not.  (Scientists disagree on its affectiveness, often citing the lack of a serious study to analyse the phenomenon. Once an American team of scientists went up in a Lear jet.  Their instruments got destroyed before they could make any in-depth conclusions).

  It´s a thankless task,” explains Silva, “If hail falls its your fault. If hail doesn´t fall its the same.”

He reckons his team prevent 30% of storms.  There is no denying the systems dangers.  The planes get knocked around violently and in 2005  a pilot and his co-pilot went down battling a storm.  Mostly people are unaware of these unsung heroes and there daily struggle with hail. Yet its not hard to imagine a Hollywood script with Antonio Banderas in pilot jacket and billowing scarf, battling the elements with a glass of Malbec at hand and Penelope Cruz pouring.