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Sleet Or Freezing Rain – What’s The Difference?

BOSTON (CBS) – They are two terms that many people use interchangeably, but sleet and freezing rain really are very different. They are caused by different conditions in the atmosphere, and one is more damaging than the other.

Watch: Barry Burbank explains the difference


Sleet starts off as snow high up in the atmosphere.

When that snow passes through a warm layer of air, several thousand feet above the ground, it melts into raindrops. Then, the refreeze.

Sleet occurs when those raindrops hit a thick layer of freezing temperatures a couple thousand feet above the ground. The raindrops refreeze and hit the ground as ice pellets.

Sleet is not traditionally as dangerous or damaging as freezing rain.


Freezing rain also starts off as snow high up in the atmosphere.

Like sleet, that snow passes through a warm layer of air several thousand feet above the ground, and melts into raindrops. This is where the similarities end.

With freezing rain, there is just a very shallow layer of freezing temperatures above the ground, maybe a couple hundred feet. There is not enough time for those raindrops to refreeze. They land as rain and freeze upon contact. That is when you get an icy glaze on trees and power lines.


One Comment

  1. Michele says:

    I appreciate this article. We were just talking about this at work, and as a native New Englander, I could not tell them what the difference was.

  2. Ellen says:

    It’s snowing again here in the Tewsksbury-Wilmington area.

  3. DAVE says:

    Alot of freezing rain here in franklin, ma then at 6 p.m. a hail storm let loose leaving a coating on the ground wierd weather!

    1. matt says:

      Hail only occurs during thunderstorms, so warm weather events. It was probably sleet that you saw.

  4. Kim says:

    It was snow not sleet, looked like dipin dots ice cream.

    Snowing in Hopedale

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