Sleet vs. Snow: What Is the Difference Between Them?

Sleet and snow, if I were to pick one, I’d pick snow just because you can see it falling from the sky. While sleet is a type of precipitation seen during winter, it’s not the same as snow. How does sleet differ from snow? Well, that is the topic of our discussion today.Snow vs Sleet

If you love winter as I do, you must have experienced both. Even the experience is different since you can see snow falling, but sleet doesn’t actually form in the sky.

Did you know that? If that is news to you, I think this article will be beneficial.

In this article, we’ll learn,

  • How and Where Sleet and Snow forms
  • The characteristic difference between the two

Let’s get into it then, shall we?

What Is Sleet?

know about sleet

According to the dictionary, it’s rain that contains ice. It’s precipitation distinct from snow and freezing rain. Sleet is basically frozen raindrops. And that’s why it’s also known as ice pellets.

Like most precipitation, it starts its journey as a snowflake when it’s high in the clouds, but it changes form as it comes down. We’ll go into the details of how it forms but in short, sleet forms when the atmospheric layer close to the surface has a freezing temperature.

Where and How Sleet Happens

Sleet usually forms in areas that experience both cold winters and precipitation. But the area also needs to have warm temperatures to melt the snow before it becomes sleet. The Northern USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom are the common areas that see sleets every winter.

In the USA, meteorologists warn of sleets more than snow since sleet can make the roads dangerous by quickly covering the roads with slippery ice. Other places include a few Asian countries, Australia, South America, and areas in the Southern part of Africa.

How Does Sleet Form?

Let’s break down it forms and what exactly causes it.

The layer of the atmosphere where we see weather patterns forming is the troposphere.

In this layer, the higher you go, the colder the air becomes. So, when precipitation forms at cloud level, the water turns into ice crystals if the temperature is below freezing.

And by sticking together, crystals form snow or snowflakes. As snow accumulates, it starts to descend onto the surface, passing through many different layers of air. To form sleets, one of those layers has to be warm enough to melt the snow.

When the snow melts into water, it now has the potential to become either freezing rain or sleet. It all depends on the lowest layer of air above the surface.

If the layer is thick enough to freeze the water drops before reaching the ground, they form little ice pellets, aka frozen raindrops.

What happens if the layer is thin? In this case, we experience freezing rain.

How Common Is Sleet?

If we’re talking about the frequency of sleets forming during winter, it’s the same as snow. Since sleet is basically melted snow that froze, sleet and snow occur at the same time. Since there isn’t accurate data for it, we can guess that 33% of the world sees sleet.

What Is Snow?

what is snow

Snow is a type of precipitation that forms up in the high clouds where the temperature is at or below freezing temperatures (0 degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit).

It occurs when water vapor freezes instantly and skips the liquid phase.

You could also define snow as the accumulation of ice crystals when it’s on the higher layers of the troposphere, i.e., the clouds.

Is Snow, Frozen Rain?

No, it’s not. While it may sound like it, they’re two different things. You may think of it as frozen water vapor. It’s much lighter than a raindrop of the same volume.

On the other hand, frozen rain is actually sleet or ice pellets.

Where and How Snow Happens

Snow occurs mainly in places of high altitudes and high latitudes. The mountainous regions of the northern and southern hemispheres, in particular, experience snow.

The Tibetan Plateau, the Andes, and the Rocky mountains see snow all year round. And of course, the most snow-prone area is the Polar Regions.

It covers 46 million square kilometers over the regions of North America, Greenland, Europe, and Russia. Asia, Japan, and regions around the Himalayas see the highest amount of snow.

How Common Is Snow?

It’s common where it occurs. Cliché, I know. But the fact is that two-thirds of the world population has never seen snow. So, if we’re talking statistics, it’s more on the uncommon side.

And when it occurs in 1/3rd of the world, it only happens during the winter. Almost 98% of earth’s snow occurs in the northern hemisphere.

Difference Between Sleet and Snow

Difference Between Sleet and Snow

While both are considered as types of precipitation, they have a few differences. Here is a brief discussion –

Definition

Snow is simply frozen water vapor that falls through the atmosphere and into the ground in the form of hexagonal ice crystals.

On the flip side, sleet is melted snow that freezes just before touching the ground. So, it doesn’t descend in the shape of ice crystals; rather, it falls as raindrops.

Atmospheric Condition for Formation

Both types of precipitation occur during winter in the northern hemisphere. But they need different atmospheric conditions to form.

Snow needs a freezing or cold temperature throughout its descent from the clouds to the ground. But for sleet to form, there has to be a layer of air warm enough to melt the snow into water. This water then falls as raindrops.

Just before the raindrops hit the ground, they should meet a thick layer of air with freezing temperatures. Only then will sleet form; if not, freezing rain will form.

Danger Level

Neither of them is dangerous by itself. But they will create nuisance on the road by covering the surfaces. In that sense, sleet creates more problems by making the roads and other surfaces slippery.

And while snow covers a lot more area, it can be plowed off and melted using salt easily.

Are Sleet, Snow, and Freezing Rain the Same?

No, they are not the same thing even though sometimes they occur almost at the same time. Yes, they are all considered precipitations during winter. But they are different in size, shape, and form.

Snow is the unadulterated form of frozen precipitation. On the other hand, sleet and freezing rain are the adulterated versions of snow.

When the warm air melts the snow into water, it produces raindrops. But there are cold layers of air with a freezing temperature that causes the raindrops to freeze. Whether the raindrops become sleet or freezing rain depends on the thickness of the layer of air near the surface.

If the layer of air is thick enough to freeze the droplets before they touch the ground, we get to see sleets. They can be recognized by the shape of ice pellets.

But in case the layer is thin, the droplets hit the freezing ground and freezes. So, freezing rain doesn’t have any shape or form except the shape of raindrops.

Also read: Tips to measuring rain at home easily.

Tips to Stay Safe from Winter Storms

Stay indoors at all times, and protect yourself if you have to go outdoors.

When you’re staying indoors, do the following:

  • Wear loose-fitting and lightweight winter clothes
  • Always check the local weather news and NOAA weather radio for emergency alerts and information
  • Eat well
  • Make sure to drink fluids, particularly warm drinks
  • Don’t drink alcohol and caffeine since these drinks can cause dehydration

When you need to go out, keep the following pieces of advice in mind:

  • Wear layered winter clothing and cover your body head to toe
  • The garments should be water repellent
  • Use coverings for the mouth and nose to prevent cold from affecting your lungs
  • Don’t take deep breaths outside
  • Keep alert for signs of hypothermia and frostbite
  • Walk and drive carefully if there’s snow or sleet on the road, as both can cause accidents
  • Don’t travel alone
  • Use publicly accessible roads and transport because you may need help at any moment
  • Keep warm fluids with you at all times
  • Also, keep emergency communication systems with you such as walkie-talkies or satellite phones and weather instruments if you live in remote areas

Related Questions

1. What does sleet look like?

You can recognize sleet or ice pellets by their translucent properties. These are much smaller than hail.

2. Which countries have never seen snow?

More countries don’t see snow than those that see snow. Countries in the south pacific and near the equator don’t see snow unless they are close to a mountainous region. In Asia, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia don’t see snow either.

3. Is sleet solid or liquid?

Unlike snow and hail, sleet is a mix of both. Sleet has solid surrounding a liquid mass.

4. What are tiny balls of snow called? Sleet?

No, it’s not sleet. It’s called Graupel or snow pellets. They are not translucent like sleet.

5. Can sleet damage your car?

Usually, sleet or ice pellets do not have enough mass to damage your car through impact. Accumulation of sleets can cause scratches at best. But the problem arises when sleet covers the road and makes it slippery.

Conclusion

If you’re comparing snow vs. sleet, the difference is obvious just by their features. But they are similar in terms of the effect they have on our lives.

If there’s too much of it, moving about becomes tough. The good news is that they are easily melted down. And they are not strong enough to hurt you if you’re in the open. But sleet will get you wet much faster than snow.

Up Next: Which lumber handle wet weather better.

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