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What is freezing rain, and why is it so dangerous?

Wintry precipitation could include snow, sleet, or freezing rain. But what is the difference?
Credit: Elvis Hardwick
An ice storm caused tree damage in parts of Memphis in February 2022

Any kind of wintry weather can cause major issues in the Memphis area. They can leave roads icy and traffic snarled, and freezing rain can cause heavy sheets of ice to build up on outdoor surfaces, bringing down tree limbs and power lines. 

But with sleet, snow, and freezing rain all possible in the winter months, what is the difference, and which one is more dangerous?


All precipitation starts in the clouds as snow, where temperatures are well below freezing. If temperatures are below freezing all the way to the ground, that snow will stay as snow and make it all the way to the ground.


Sleet falls as tiny pellets of ice that can accumulate on the ground. You can usually tell it's sleeting because those ice pellets are noisy as they hit your window and roof. Sleet happens when that snow melts into rain on the way to the surface, but has a chance to refreeze into ice pellets before hitting the ground.

Freezing rain

In the case of freezing rain, that snow falls through a layer of warm air above the surface that melts it into rain. The difference with freezing rain and sleet is that while sleet has enough time to refreeze, freezing rain falls as rain and then freezes to ice once it hits the surface.

Credit: ABC24

Freezing rain is arguably the most dangerous type of wintry weather because it causes so many issues. That ice can accumulate on branches and power lines, causing widespread power outages in some cases. Ice is also nearly impossible to drive on, especially going uphill. 

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