Know It All: What’s the Difference Between Snow, Freezing Rain, Sleet, and Hail?

When you prepare for a winter storm, do you know all the forms that can be assumed by the falling frozen water?

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

What’s the Difference Between Snow, Freezing Rain, Sleet, and Hail?

Before every big winter storm, weather forecasters outline the variety of potential precipitation that citizens could potentially encounter and yet, the specifics of these water-based threats are rarely ever explained, on-air.

They’re all just forms of very cold water, right? So why distinguish them with different titles? Because unlike many accepted parts of our modern news culture, there is actually some logic involved.

Rather than being all cute and bombastic in my prose to explain each brand of precipitation, I’m just going to define them all based on the rulings of the American Meteorological Society Glossary of Meteorology.

  • hail: precipitation in the form of balls or irregular lumps of ice (5 mm or more in diameter –anything smaller is considered an “ice pellet“).
  • snow: precipitation composed of white or translucent ice crystals, chiefly in the form of snowflakes.
  • sleet: a mixture of rain and snow.
  • freezing rain: rain that falls when surface temperatures are below freezing – the liquid precipitation freezes when it hits the super-cold surface.

Where does this leave us?

Well, in the hierarchy of cold water that falls from above, it would seem like hail is king of the mountain, as it’s basically a super-hardened version of snow. Snow, in turn, is a softer version of hail that gets cold earlier and stays cold longer (in the air) when compared to freezing rain. And sleet? I don’t know why we even have a specific term for something that general (maybe I’ll look that up, next week).

Now you know.

Justin Brown is a writer and artist living in Virginia. He channels most of his mind's molten river of creativity into his blog Esteban Was Eaten!. For even more information about him, check out his website.

  • Madison

    Hi

  • Meteorologist

    Weak. Here’s a better explanation for people that land here because of Google…

    Hail is created when rain gets thrown upwards in the atmosphere and hits cold air and freezes. This can happen relatedly until the hail is too heavy for the updraft and falls to the ground. On each subsequent fall before being tossed back up the ice ball collects more water droplets, that’s why hail will have many layers like a jawbreaker if you can cut it open.

    Snow is water that has frozen into a crystal in the air and falls to the ground without ever thawing.

    Sleet is rain that freezes on its way down into an ice ball. It could possibly thaw and refreeze if it hits a warm pocket, but it reaches the ground already frozen. That’s why you can see sleet bounce when it lands.

    Freezing rain is rain that freezes after landing. It’s just normal rain, but the ground itself is so cold that it freezes the liquid water that lands on it.

    NOW you know. 😉

  • Sven

    Actually, snow is formed from water vapor as opposed to liquid water. This is one huge distinction between all of these different kinds of solid water. When water goes from vapor form straight to a solid, it is called deposition. This is how we get snowflakes formed in clouds and frost on leaves or anything at the ground level. Freezing rain is the best counter example of this. When rain is falling (liquid water) and it hits a supercooled surface, it freezes into solid water and we can visually see a difference in structure. This would be the best example of water going from gas to solid and water going from liquid to solid. Pretty neat though.