Freezing rain is one of the most deadly and destructive forms of winter weather. Unlike snow and sleet, which fall from the sky and simply pile up on the surface, freezing rain creates a deadly layer of ice.
There are a few basic elements that need to be in place for freezing rain to occur. First, there must be a thick layer of warm air in the mid-layers of the atmosphere. There also must be a very narrow layer of below-freezing temperatures at the surface.
As snow generated in higher levels of the clouds, where it is quite cold, reaches the large layer of above-freezing air above freezing, it gradually melts into rain as it falls through it. If the surface were also above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it would stay just that – rain.
But, if there were to be a relatively thick layer of cold air near the surface, the rain would have a chance to freeze into ice pellets, resulting in sleet.
However, when just the conditions are just right and only the immediate ground remains below freezing, freezing rain occurs. As falling rain droplets impact this cold ground, they instantly freeze solid. As more and more droplets hit the ground, a layer of ice gradually develops. This coating of ice, which accumulates on all exposed surfaces, can become quite thick if the freezing rain continues to fall heavily for a while.
This thickness is one of the reasons why freezing rain is so dangerous. For example, if the level of the ice accretion reaches just 2/10 of an inch, tree branches can snap under the immense weight, potentially damaging property. These branches can also sever power lines as they crash to the ground, leaving many people without heat or electricity.
If the ice accumulates further, reaching more than 1 inch in thickness, trees can be completely toppled, causing severe and lasting damage to the ecosystem, as well as cutting power and stopping travel for days. Roofs can also collapse under the weight of the ice, especially if it accretes on top of existing snow cover.
In addition to the danger caused by the weight of the ice, it can also pose a big hazard to motorists. Upon taking a quick look outside while freezing rain is falling, one might think that it is simply raining, and that it is safe to travel.
This may be true on well-salted road surfaces, but as soon as a driver exits onto an untreated roadway, the road can become dangerously slick. It can become near impossible to stop, or even change direction on an icy road surface. Motorists may also be completely unprepared for ice, thinking that they are driving in a just a rainstorm.
Icy sidewalks can also pose a hazard to pedestrians as they become quite slippery. This particularly applies to the elderly, who can be easily injured in a fall.
Overall, while freezing rain is somewhat of an unusual type of weather for many areas, it is not something to take lightly. Make sure that you notice its warning signs so that you can take action to protect your life and property.