Weather Science

Rainspotting: how to tell the difference between the many forms of winter precipitation.

When you walk outside this upcoming week you might notice something particularly alarming about the weather. It’s cold, real cold. Not the brutal cold Upstate New Yorkers are accustomed to, but cold enough to bring frost and possibly, just possibly a little bit of snow. Although there is a slight chance of a flurry in the forecast, Rochesterians have a better chance of seeing different forms of precipitation such as sleet, freezing rain, or even graupel. These other forms may not bring the beauty fresh white snowflakes bring, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a significant impact on the surrounding environment.

You might recall one of those depressing winter days where the sun doesn’t seem to exist and you wished you owned a parka. It also just so happens that it is raining and the temperature at the surface is below the freezing point. You might venture outside only to fall right on your bottom due to the ice rink outside the front door.

Yeah, we know.
Photo: Wayne Nalbandian

This precipitation type is known as freezing rain. Warm air just above the surface allows falling snow to melt and fall as rain. A very shallow-layer of temperatures below 32 degrees hugs the surface causing rain to freeze on contact with roads, trees, power lines, and other structures. Light accumulations may cause dangerous travel, while heavier amounts can cause widespread, lengthy power outages.

Now think back to a time where you were driving east on the Thruway, and suddenly falling white pellets ambush your car, restricting your view to a few feet in front of you. This type of winter precipitation is known as sleet or ice pellets.

It’s always much prettier in animated form.

Sleet forms in a somewhat similar environment to freezing rain. Falling snow travels through a warm layer aloft where it melts into rain. After exiting this warmer layer, the raindrops then refreeze into pellets of ice as they fall into a very cold layer of sub-freezing air just above the surface of the earth. The difference between freezing rain and sleet is that with sleet, the cold layer near the surface is quite a bit deeper, allowing the falling rain time to refreeze. Ice pellets essentially take the form of frozen raindrops and even have the ability to accumulate. An important feature to note about sleet is that it is often see-through, solid ice. This can cause problems on any roadway, as sleet tends to act like snow when it accumulates.

Graupel. Because sleet can get more complicated.
Photo: Todd O’Bannon

Sleet is often confused with another form of wintry precipitation that people are not too familiar with known as graupel. Unlike sleet graupel is normally cloudy or white, not transparent. Graupel often forms when water droplets are collected and freeze on a falling snowflake. Since graupel is similar to sleet, it also has the ability to accumulate and cause problems on the roadways.

When you’re traveling around the Rochester area this winter, be sure to look out for these forms of wintry precipitation, as they surely will make a visit to our region.