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Precipitation: Types & Formation

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  • 0:04 What Is Precipitation?
  • 1:08 Rain
  • 1:54 Snow
  • 2:36 Sleet & Freezing Rain
  • 3:37 Hail
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson, we'll explain what precipitation is and how it forms. We'll then go over the characteristics of the five types of precipitation: rain, snow, sleet, freezing rain, and hail.

What Is Precipitation?

Whether it's a sunny day at the beach, a windy bike ride, or a rainy day to stay in, weather occurs all around us. Today, we're going to learn about precipitation, or the return of water to the earth from the atmosphere.

There are five main types of precipitation:

  • Rain
  • Snow
  • Sleet
  • Freezing rain, and
  • Hail

Before we start comparing the types of precipitation, let's review how precipitation happens.

All forms of precipitation are the result of the water cycle, or the movement of water between the earth and the atmosphere. On Earth, the heat from the sun causes surface water to evaporate, or change from a liquid to a gas. The water vapor is stored in clouds until the air becomes saturated. At this point, the water vapor condenses with small particles of dust and forms water droplets that return to Earth as precipitation. The temperature and conditions in the clouds and on Earth cause different types of precipitation to form. Let's look at the different forms of precipitation next.

Rain

Rain is liquid water falling to Earth from the atmosphere. Since rain is a liquid, the temperature on Earth must be well above freezing to prevent rain from turning into the other types of precipitation: snow, sleet, or freezing rain.

All precipitation, including rain, forms primarily from two types of clouds: nimbostratus and cumulonimbus. Nimbostratus clouds are the mid, dark clouds that create gray, rainy days or light snow. Precipitation from these clouds continues throughout the day. Cumulonimbus, on the other hand, are low lying clouds consisting of thick puffy columns climbing into the atmosphere. These are thunderstorm clouds and bring intense, short bursts of rain, heavy snowfall, hail, and even tornados.

Snow

The beautiful, fluffy, white stuff falling from the sky is snow, or atmospheric water vapor frozen into crystals. These beautiful crystals are all unique due to conditions in the clouds. Temperature, humidity, and wind all help to create a wide variety of snowflakes ranging in size from 0.5 inches to up to two inches in diameter.

Snow forms when the temperature in the clouds is below freezing. If temperatures are above freezing on the ground, snow will fall, but will quickly melt when it hits the ground. There is no lower limit on the temperature that snow can develop in. However, warmer air holds more moisture, which creates heavier snow falls.

Sleet

Probably one of the most unpleasant types of weather to be out in is sleet. Sleet is a form of precipitation that occurs when rain or melted snow hits a cool pocket of air above the ground. The liquid water freezes into tiny ice pellets that collide with the surface of the earth. Luckily, sleet is usually very light and bounces off of the ground, rarely doing damage to crops and structures the way ice, hail, or heavy snow can.

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