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Freezing Rain vs. Sleet vs. Snow

by CBS11 Meteorologist Jeff Jamison
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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Jeff Jamison
Jeff is a meteorologist for CBS 11 News. You can watch his fore...
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The forecast is calling for the potential for a widespread winter weather event for North Texas, primarily Sunday into Monday.  As it looks right now, sleet and freezing rain look to be the main types of wintry precipitation affecting North Texas late this weekend.

But what is the difference between freezing rain and sleet…and even snow?  It all depends on the temperature, not only here on the ground, but in the upper atmosphere as well.

We get just rain when the temperatures are above 32° throughout most of the air column above the surface.  The is what we get 99% of the year here in North Texas:  plain ol’ rain.

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Freezing rain is actually just rain that freezes once it hits the ground, where temperatures have cooled to below 32°.  The air just above the surface is usually much warmer, which is why freezing rain doesn’t feel differently from rain to you or me…because it’s falling as liquid.  But when that liquid encounters a cold ground, it freezes.  Freezing rain is the least desirable form on winter precipitation since it can quickly lead to severe icing problems if the surface temperatures are cold enough.  You really need ground temps at or below 28° for significant travel issues to start happening.

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Sleet occurs when snow falls in the upper atmosphere, but melts partially in a thin layer of warm air…and then refreezes into sleet pellets before it hits the ground.  Sleet will actually bounce off windshields or roofs…if you going to hear wintry precipitation, it’s more than likely sleet.  Sleet can accumulate and become a sheet of ice on roads as temperatures fall well below freezing.

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Finally, snow occurs when the temperatures all the way from the ground to the clouds are well below freezing. 

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