Ask Storm Team 11: What kinds of winter precipitation are there?


Thursday’s Ask Storm Team 11 question is, “What kinds of winter precipitation are there?”

Forecasting precipitation as we enter the winter months can be a tricky job for meteorologists. Every single layer in the atmosphere matters, and a couple degrees difference can change the forecast drastically. 

Typically, precipitation starts off as snow in the freezing levels of the atmosphere in the clouds. As it falls, it melts and hits the surface as rain.  It is simple to forecast rain if we know the lower atmosphere is above freezing. It also can be simple to forecast snow if all layers of the atmosphere are below freezing. 

Recall not ever layer of the atmosphere behaves the same. 

In some cases, there is a freezing layer at the cloud level, a warm layer, then a freezing layer at the surface. This creates freezing rain. The precipitation starts frozen, melts in the warm layer, then refreezes at the very end when it makes contact with the surface.

If that freezing layer at the surface covers a greater distance, sleet can occur. Frozen precipitation at the freezing level melts when falling through the warm layer, then refreezes as it enters another freezing layer. 

Freezing rain and sleet can make for extremely dangerous conditions by creating slick areas on roadways and can cause trees and powerlines to snap by adding weight to them.  

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