This photo shows what happens to a landscape after an ice storm of freezing rain. The storm happened in Corning, KS on December 10-11, 2007.
Click on image for full size
National Weather Service Forecast Office of Topeka, KS

Sleet and Freezing Rain

Sleet forms when a partially melted snowflake or raindrop turns back into ice as it is falling through the air. Sleet starts out in the clouds as a snowflake or a raindrop. If it starts out as a snowflake, this means the layer it starts out in has a below freezing temperature; if it starts out as a raindrop then the first layer has an above freezing temperature. As the snowflake or raindrop falls towards the ground, it then moves through a warmer above freezing layer. This layer causes the snowflake to start to melt. Next the raindrop and the melted snowflake travel through a colder layer which is below freezing; this last layer causes the raindrop to freeze and the melted snowflake to refreeze. Sleet is usually tiny clear ice pellets that bounce when they hit the ground. An ice pellet is about 0.2 inches (5mm) or less, which is smaller than hail.

Freezing Rain happens when raindrops fall in liquid form and immediately freeze as they hit a cold surface. The process for freezing rain is similar to the process for sleet, except that freezing rain goes through a deeper layer of above freezing temperatures, allowing the snowflake to melt even further. The last layer the raindrop and melted snowflake travel through is rather small, unlike the last layer sleet travels through. This small layer causes the raindrops to become extremely cold. In this case, the ground level will have been below freezing for at least few hours if not several days. Freezing drizzle is similar to freezing rain but is much smaller and always starts out as a raindrop.

Freezing rain causes highways or roadways to be like ice skating rinks for automobiles. Since freezing rain freezes on contact with a surface, over time the amount of ice on an object increases. This can cause extensive damage to trees and power lines because the weight of the ice is too heavy for these objects. In January 1998 an ice storm or freezing rain storm hit northern New England and Canada and left millions of people without power in their homes.

Last modified July 24, 2008 by Vanessa Pearce.

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more


Rain is precipitation that falls to the Earth in drops of 5mm or more in diameter according to the US National Weather Service. Virga is rain that evaporates before reaching the ground. Raindrops form...more

Examples of Advisories, Watches, and Warnings for Weather Events

Below is a list of some weather conditions that call for an advisory, watch, or warning. Severe Thunderstorm Watch: A severe thunderstorm watch is issued when a thunderstorm with winds greater than 57...more

Type of Wind: Northeaster

Northeasters, also known as nor’easters, are cyclonic, cold winds that develop in the mid-latitudes. They can bring heavy snow or sleet and gale force winds of 40-55 mph (64.5-88.7 kph). This type of wind...more

Tonenili, Navajo God of Water

Tonenili, who is also known as the Water Sprinkler, is the Navaho God of Water.  He is responsible for rain, sleet, and snow. He also causes thunder and lightning Tonenili is a very mischievous guy.  He...more

Sleet and Freezing Rain

Sleet forms when a partially melted snowflake or raindrop turns back into ice as it is falling through the air. Sleet starts out in the clouds as a snowflake or a raindrop. If it starts out as a snowflake,...more


Drizzle is light precipitation that is made up of liquid water drops that are smaller than rain drops. Drizzle can be so light that only a millimeter of water falls to the Earth's surface in one day. It...more

Rain Shadow

A rain shadow is a dry region of land on the side of a mountain range that is protected from the prevailing winds. Prevailing winds are the winds that occur most of the time in a particular location on...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA