What is sleet? It’s not snow, rain or hail.

·2 min read

Sleet is arguably the least enchanting of the precipitations and the most unpleasant. Sleet is no match for scarves, hats or mittens; it pierces through warmth and contributes to the brutal ‘Feels Like’ temperature on your weather forecast.

As the Carolinas got hit by a winter storm early Sunday, some parts of the Charlotte-area experienced sleet.

But what is it actually?

Contrary to some misconceptions, sleet is not freezing rain. National Geographic attributes sleet to “ a temperature inversion,” which causes snow to melt and refreeze. Snowflakes fall when the air column stays frozen all the way from the cloud to the ground. But, if there’s a temperature inversion — a warm layer of air between the ground and the clouds — the snowflake will melt in this layer and then refreeze when it hits cold air again.

That layer of cold air closest to the ground has to be thick enough to allow the snowflake to freeze again, otherwise it will just fall as rain.

If that layer of refreeze air is too thin, you get freezing rain, which means the water solidifies on contact with a surface, like a road or car. A thin layer of ice can form, making surfaces not only wet but also slippery.

Snow blankets uptown Charlotte on Sunday morning, Jan. 16, 2020.
Snow blankets uptown Charlotte on Sunday morning, Jan. 16, 2020.

But sleet, to the naked eye, may look like pea-sized or smaller ice pellets

You may have noticed sleet bounces off surfaces because it has hardened by the time it lands on Earth. Hail, while also similar, is much larger than the small orbs of sleet.

Sleet can make already slushy roads more treacherous by covering them with unstable, rolling layers of tiny ice pellets. And if they melt, they can add moisture to surfaces that are freeze again when temperatures drop overnight, for example.

Remember to use extra caution when driving on bridges and overpasses, which are even more likely to ice over since they are suspended in the cold air without the ground to warm them.

Mostly sleet and snow showers are expected Sunday afternoon and into night, the weather service said.

Alongside sleet, Winter Storm Izzy brought more than 1,200 canceled flights to Charlotte Douglas International Airport and more than 113,000 Duke Energy customers without power by the mid-afternoon Sunday, including 70,000 in North Carolina.

Izzy is on track to be among the most significant winter weather to hit the two states in more than three years.