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What is freezing rain and how is it different from snow and sleet?

Published: Friday, January 17, 2020 @ 10:13 AM

What is the difference between rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow? Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs has the answers.

During the winter months you may often hear about snow, sleet and freezing rain. 

Each has its own hazards, but freezing rain can create hidden dangers on the roads, more than the others. Unlike snow or sleet on pavement, freezing rain can appear wet, but is actually a sheet of ice and will leave no traction for drivers.

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Freezing rain forms in the clouds just like snow, but it’s what happens after the snowflake leaves the cloud that changes everything. During a freezing rain event the air within the cloud is cold enough to produce a snowflake. 

If the snowflake falls into air below the cloud that is above freezing, it will melt into a raindrop. This droplet will continue to fall as rain as long as the environment remains above 32 degrees. 

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Since cold air is more dense than warm air, sometimes a thin layer of subfreezing air may settle to the surface cooling the ground. If this occurs, once the droplet hits anything that is below 32 degrees it will freeze on contact. Typically, elevated objects such as trees, overpasses and power lines are the first to accumulate ice. If freezing rain continues for an extended period of time, ice may become so thick that numerous accidents and power outages may occur.