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Understanding the 4 Types of Winter Precipitation – Snow, Sleet, Freezing Rain and Plain Rain

Contributed by James Bria, CompuWeather Sr. Forensic Meteorologist & Weather Expert

There are four types of precipitation that occur in the winter: snow, sleet, freezing rain and plain rain. These four types of precipitation will almost always form as snow in the clouds. The temperature of the atmosphere between the clouds and the ground will determine what the precipitation type is by the time it reaches the surface. When the temperature in the atmosphere between the cloud and the ground remains at or below freezing (32 F) the precipitation will remain in the form of snow. When snow falls into a portion of the atmosphere where the temperature is above freezing, that snow will melt and change to plain rain. If the temperature remains above freezing from that point all the way to the surface, the precipitation will remain in the form of rain.  If the rain falls into a portion of the atmosphere at the ground where the temperature is at or below freezing, the precipitation can either reach the ground as sleet (ice pellets) or freezing rain. The precipitation type in this case is determined by the depth of the layer at or below freezing temperatures. If the depth of the layer at or below freezing air is sufficiently thick, then the rain will have enough time to freeze before reaching the surface and fall in the form of sleet. If the layer at or below freezing temperature is rather shallow and confined to the area closest to the surface, then the precipitation will impact the surface as plain rain. The rain will freeze on contact and result in freezing rain.

Freezing rain is the most dangerous form of winter precipitation and will cause all surfaces to become coated in ice. This coating of ice makes any outdoor activities difficult and sometimes nearly impossible for drivers and pedestrians. Freezing rain will accumulate on trees and power lines and when winds are gusty; this can result in major tree damage and loss of utility services. Ice storms can quickly cripple a region, even in areas that are normally accustomed to winter weather.