When the temperature on the surface of Earth reaches the freezing point of 32 F, multiple types of precipitation, including freezing rain, sleet or snow, can fall.
The root cause of these different weather events lies in the differences in temperature of the atmospheric air column above Earth's surface. When the whole area of atmosphere between the clouds and the Earth's surface is above 32 F, precipitation will not freeze and rain will come down. Regular rain turns into freezing rain when Earth's surface has cooled down to temperatures at or below freezing.
"It comes down as regular rain and then freezes at the surface, forming a coating of ice on the ground," Accuweather.com Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said.
Since the rain is not freezing until it reaches the surface, it still falls like regular rain and therefore looks and feels the same until it freezes on the ground. It is important to pay attention to the temperature outside during the cold winter months, so you will be able to tell if there is a possibility for freezing rain if temperatures drop below 32 F.
Snow forms when the atmospheric temperature near the clouds is low enough to freeze precipitation. If the atmosphere remains consistently below 32 F between the clouds and Earth's surface, then snow will reach the ground. This is why there can be snowy periods even when the surface temperature is above freezing, as long as the atmospheric temperature remains low for most of the precipitation's descent.
However, if there is a layer of warm air in the atmosphere between two layers that are below freezing, snow will fall in the upper atmosphere and then partially melt in the warm layer. When that partially melted snow makes it through the warm layer into the second cold layer, it refreezes into sleet before it hits the ground.
Sleet is noticeably different from rain or snow because it is characterized by small ice pellets that will bounce off of objects. Even though this may sound more hazardous than freezing rain, that is not the case.
"Freezing rain is by far the most dangerous because it forms a solid sheet of ice, as opposed to sleet that just has small ice pellets that quickly bounce off of the surface," Anderson said. "Actually, sleet can even provide a little bit of traction for drivers, as opposed to the obvious dangers of a solid sheet of ice that forms from freezing rain."
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