What's the difference between freezing rain and sleet? - WXOW News 19 La Crosse, WI – News, Weather and Sports |

What's the difference between freezing rain and sleet?

With the advent of Sunday's winter storm, the potential for precipitation to fall not only as snow exists, but also for periods of rain, freezing rain and sleet to move across the state.

Snow and rain are widely understood forms of precipitation, but often times freezing rain and sleet have people confused as to what they are and what makes them different.

Between the two, freezing rain is considered as the more dangerous because it often immediately leads to very slippery roadways. It can also begin to build up as ice on power lines and tree limbs. During periods of heavy icing, freezing rain is often blamed for power outages.

Sleet can also yield slick roadways, but often accumulates much in the way snow does. Interestingly, the term sleet is used almost exclusively in the United States. More often in the rest of the world sleet is referred to as what it actually is: ice pellets.

In deciphering the difference between the two, the most important variable to investigate is what form the precipitation is as it is falling through the air.

Freezing rain falls in the atmosphere as a liquid. It freezes only when it comes in contact with surfaces that are at or below freezing. When freezing rain occurs, an ice glaze can develop easily on any surface it touches. In many cases, that would be roads and sidewalks and is one reason why bridges and overpasses can become so dangerous when freezing rain threatens.

Sleet falls in the atmosphere as a solid pellet of ice. That is why it is commonly referred to as ice pellets. The precipitation is in a totally frozen solid state as it travels through the air, and when it hits the ground. Though it may melt after hitting the Earth's surface and re-freeze, that would be after the fact, and what separates it from freezing rain.

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