Ice from the skies!

By Phil Plait | October 22, 2008 2:00 pm

A woman in York County, Pennsylvania had a rude awakening last night: a six pound chunk of ice fell through her roof and smacked her on the head. It was reported on the local news, and they’ve posted a video.

It doesn’t look like hail. Given the amount and size, I’m thinking it’s simply ice from an airplane, maybe some buildup on a wing that fell off. However, in the news segment, the woman and her husband speculate it might be a meteorite.

I really doubt that. Really really. Ice is extremely fragile, and wouldn’t hit intact like that; it would break up or melt away long before it could hit the ground. In general, something that fragile would start off big, like school bus sized, then break up on its way down, showering down hundreds of pieces over a large area. However, the news report doesn’t mention any other such events.

Also, the ice looks fairly homogeneous, and not mixed up with rock. I’d expect a space traveler to be a bit more heterogeneous, though it’s maybe not out of the question.

So all in all, I think they had an interesting event, but not an extraterrestrial one. I’m glad they saved some pieces; they’re being sent to a lab at York University for analysis. I’d recommend that anyway, but I strongly suspect the verdict will return a terrestrial origin for the night visitor.

Oh, one more thing: the ice fell through the roof and hit the woman on the head in a glancing blow. She’s fortunate it didn’t hit her full on; it could have killed her. Instead, it raised a bump on her forehead.

That must hurt! She should put some ice on it.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Fark.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, DeathfromtheSkies!, Humor

Comments (30)

Links to this Post

  1. Hantavirus scare in York, PA! « BIO230 | September 13, 2012
  1. Weird stuff

    “That must hurt! She should put some ice on it.”
    Good one.

  2. Hey, you beat me to it, weird! I was gonna type the exact same thing!
    Coincidence? I think not…

  3. If that was ice from the wing of a plane, wouldn’t that have brought down the plane? Icing on the wings is not a good thing. If it came from a plane, it’s most likely from the lavatory.

  4. She’s fortunate it didn’t hit her full on; it could have killed her.

    I bet your book doesn’t have a chapter on that one. :-)

  5. I just realized what is happening here… Phil is out promoting his book… Death From The Skies! Seriously, there has to be a better way of getting the word out.

  6. zaardvark

    Enjoy every day, because you never know when there will be … DEATH FROM THE SKIES!

  7. Doc

    I remember reading a news report a long while back about a similar incident, except in that case the ice was odd colored and smelled terrible when it started to melt. The conclusion was that it came from an airplane lavatory.

  8. Stark

    Icing on aircraft happens all the time. It’s unavoidable. A six pound chuck building up on the aircraft is not inconceivable and would generally pose no hazard to the aircraft itself. While excessive ice buildup would be cause for concern this is a VERY rare occurrence in flight due to the anti-icing systems all jets have. These systems keep the wings and control surfaces clear of ice in all but the very worst of flight conditions. There are, however, other places on aircraft where ice could build up and subsequently break away.

    It is very unlikely that the ice was from a lavatory though. Lavatory waste is stored in a tank on board the aircraft and then pumped out upon landing. While leaks do occur and the occasional chunk of lavatory ice hits a home (last I can recall was in Calgary last year) it’s quite easily identified due to it being blue. The color is from the chemicals used in the lavatory systems.

    Clear ice, as this is, is either from wing or fuselage buildup or the sinks on board the plane. The sinks do simply vent overboard and it’s possible, though very unusual, for an icicle to build up and then break off in a large chunk. The venting systems are designed to actively prevent such an occurence – not due to safety concerns on the ground but more due to clogging concerns of the venting system. Big chunks of ice stuck to the venting system would not be a good thing – clogged sink drains are a pain at 30.000ft.

    The greatest likely hood here is a bit of fuselage ice breaking away.

  9. Michelle

    Megacryometeor perhaps?

    I saw this on the very credible website Cracked.

    It’s their #5. 😛

  10. Maura

    I have a friend whose car was hit by plane lavatory ice a few years back. (The newspaper article quoted a kid who called it “poo ice”.) No one was in the car at the time, which is good because they would definitely have been hurt. But their insurance didn’t pay for it. I hope these homeowners have a good policy to help them pay for their roof.

  11. Ivan

    That must hurt! She should put some ice on it.

    I see what you did thar Phil.

  12. Thomas Siefert

    This is getting to be like one of these jokes that doesn’t make sense and the punch line is always the same.

    Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
    A: Because of DEATH FROM THE SKIES!

    An astronomer, a biologist and an astrologer walked into a bar.
    The astronomer then said: DEATH FROM THE SKIES!

  13. Chip

    Those are rather chunky pieces to have formed from an aircraft fuselage or wing surface but I suppose its possible. Trouble is, I bet the results of the lab test won’t be reported as a follow up by the news station.

    A goofy speculation that occurred to me was to imagine ice trapped inside the rocky shell of a incoming meteor and as it entered Earth’s atmosphere the outside heats up from air friction while deep inside it is still very cold. This preserves the frozen ice through entry. Then at lower altitude the rock explodes away freeing ice chunks to just fall.

    However, as the BA points out, the whole thing would probably fragment into many pieces and melt away.

  14. -E

    It’s been covered by already. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were one of those because I highly doubt that a chunk of ice in that shape could form somewhere on the fuselage of a plane or on the wings.

  15. BethK

    This is local to me, and WGAL is a pretty thorough and reliable television station. The web page about it is at

    The York Dispatch newspaper has interviews with the scientists studying it at York College – – including what they’ve done to it so far.

  16. Fozzillo

    Here in Italy we have stopped believing in ice from the sky. We had a very “icy” season a few years ago, where investigated the cases resulted hoaxes.
    I admit this case seems to be real but I remain skeptic.
    Was it windy that night? Did a branch fall from a tree?
    Maybe they just made it up by collecting some ice from the fridge hoping for a “big airplane company” check. who knows?

  17. Put some ice on it!
    Man, that’s cold…

  18. Swordfish

    I don’t think it’s fake. If it is fake, it’s very convincingly done. The ice is too dirty to have come from the inside of a freezer… at least I sure hope their freezer isn’t that dirty, and that chunk of shingle in it is a nice touch. I’d also think that a tree branch would leave kind of a long path of damage instead of a puncture like that.

    Also, the skies over York in Pennsylvania aren’t exactly the most congested in the world. I went to college at relatively nearby Millersville University (for meteorology, no less), and there were never very many airplanes in sky, at least not as many as I’m used to. Though I will grant that what I’m used to is a lot because I live close to Philadelphia International Airport. I know a low amount of air traffic doesn’t eliminate the possibility of it falling from an airplane, but it’s something to consider.

    Some bad luck for the homeowners, though, with all of the farmland in that part of the state that it could have fallen on, it had to fall on their house instead.

  19. Naomi

    Wait, planes have anti-icing techniques to stop ice building up, right? Then what the hell was that stuff on the leading edges of the wings of the planes I took on my overseas trip last February? It was a light, whitish-blue line on the leading edges of the wings (at least, the one I could see from my seat – I was near the wings on both flights, there and back), it was only present when we were really high up and I couldn’t see it at ALL on the ground, and it was generally early morning somewhere over the Pacific (Northern winter, Southern summer – it would have been over the North on the flight over and South on the way back). It was a lot more visible when it was morning in the South. In one of the photos, you can see some faint streaking coming back off it, extending maybe (and I’m guessing the scale here) four inches from the leading edge.

    So, WAS it ice?

  20. Melusine

    So the ice has a fishy odor? Curious. (Thanks for the link, Beth K.)

  21. BethK

    Swordfish, I teach Computer Science at Millersville and live toward the river (toward York County). There are an amazing number of flight paths over this area. I sometimes used to see the Concorde flying by on its way to a west approach into Dulles. There are days when the sky is well-crossed with contrails. We have flights overhead from Philly, BWI, and Middletown, as well as many other places.

  22. David S.

    BethK, thanks as well for the York Dispatch link, as I hadn’t seen it yet. I’m the microbiologist at York College. We’ll likely melt some of the ice as cleanly as possible, however it has been handled quite a lot, and we’ll have to be careful to eliminate surface contamination. If it is something dropped from a plane or a hailstone, it’ll likely have lots of organisms, many of which are unculturable, so we’ll stain a sample with a DNA binding dye to visualize bacteria.

    In regards to the homeowners’ insurance question above; I asked that as well of the Fosters. Yes, they were covered by this.

  23. Swordfish

    Ah, well, I guess I just didn’t notice the air traffic while I was out there. I also haven’t been out there for any real length of time since I graduated in May, so I could have easily forgotten too.

  24. Stark

    Naomi – Yes, that was ice. A little bit of leading edge ice-formation at altitude is not at all unusual and poses no risk to the aircraft. Typically de-icing systems would not be engaged for just some minor leading edge icing. Ice becomes a problem when it begins to build up on the surface of the wings – which increases weight quite a bit and will eventually result in control surfaces icing over. Iced control surfaces are a Very Bad Thing – a crash causing thing.

  25. Mad Hussein LOLscientist, FCD

    Oh noes! Not more icy BMs!

    One thing’s for sure: That’s one well-insulated attic!

  26. Bud S.

    Ice from the skies may be a topic in your book, Phil — I don’t know, since I’m only half way through. Great book, by the way. But I want to mention a typo that missed the final proofread. Page 149, last paragraph. “That meant it had to be a black hole; a 7-solar-mass-star would have been be easy to detect.”

  27. Maria Sanchez

    This is a topic, probably related with extreme atmospheric events, that was already studied by different authors:

    See Megacryometeors:

    To my knowledge, several papers have been published in the following scientific journals:

    Journal of Chromatography
    AMBIO: Journal of the Human Environment
    Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry
    Journal of Environmental Monitoring

    I think that there are evidence that their origin is atmospheric (upper troposphere).




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