COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Hail, sleet, and freezing rain can cause difficulties for many, including dangerous conditions for drivers and crop loss for farmers. Although the three all involve frozen water, the similarities stop there.
What are the differences between freezing rain, hail and sleet? Are the terms interchangeable?
There are differences between all three and no, they are not interchangeable.
Freezing rain is rain that falls as liquid and freezes after reaching the ground. It is otherwise known as an ice storm.
Hail and sleet are more closely related. The end result of both is ice falling to the ground, but there are differences between the two.
Hail forms from thunderstorms and sleet forms from winter storms. Hail typically forms in violent thunderstorms when raindrops are blown upward within a cloud to heights of 50,000 feet or higher. Temperatures at this height are well below freezing. (As a reference, commercial airlines fly across the country at altitudes of around 35,000 feet.) Due to strong updrafts and downdrafts, raindrops can accumulate many layers of ice while bouncing up and down within the storm. This can result in large hailstones.
Sleet forms in the winter as raindrops freeze on their descent toward the ground. Since the drops are not bounced up and down inside the cloud, sleet cannot grow in size like hail, and typically reaches the ground as small pellets of ice.
Hail causes $1 billion in damage to crops and property each year.
Is there a way to simply look at a thunderstorm and tell if it will produce hail at the ground?
There is no positive way to look at a thunderstorm in the distance and tell if it will produce hail reaching the ground.
Meteorologists use weather radar to "look" inside a thunderstorm. Since hail reflects more energy back to the radar than raindrops it often shows up in red shades.
Fast facts about hail:
The costliest hailstorm in the United States was in Denver in July 1990 with damage of $625 million.
The largest hailstone ever recorded fell in Coffeyville, Kansas on September 3, 1970. It measured about 17.5 inches in circumference (over 5.6 inches in diameter) and weighed more than 26 ounces (almost two pounds.)
Should I be concerned about tornadoes when hail is observed?
Since large hail indicates very strong updrafts and downdrafts within the thunderstorm, it can also indicate tornadic activity. Often large hail is observed immediately north of a tornado track, but the presence of hail doesn't always mean a tornado and the absence of hail doesn't always mean there isn't a risk of tornadoes.