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

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook