I finally decided to school myself as to the difference types of winter madness.
As I understand it, basically:
- snow falls as snow up high and stays below freezing the entire way down to the ground
- sleet falls as snow up high and travels through enough warm air that it partially melts on the way down. Afterwards, it encounters freezing temperatures again, such that it refreezes and forms something quite similar to hail (though caused by completely different types of weather)
- freezing rain falls as snow up high and travels through enough warm air that it melts completely. Then once it encounters freezing temperatures, it clings to surfaces as freezing rain
Of these types of precipitation, freezing rain is the most dangerous. It is the most slick and can weigh down things like trees and power lines enough to snap them.
predicting freezing rain and sleet
I'm slightly familiar with soundings and SKEW-T plots so now I know to look for the layer of above-freezing temperatures in these plots as a way to indicate that there could be sleet or freezing rain.
What I'd like to know more about is how they forecast between the two. I do know from experience, that the forecast will often show a chance for both, which indicates there's uncertainty as to which type it will be (and of course, during a storm, it can often mix between the two anyhow).
But I'd be curious to see how the formula is calculated to determine if a snowflake will melt completely. I would presume it's a mixture of how long the above-freezing temperatures will last (i.e., how many layers of the atmosphere are above freezing) and just how far above freezing those temperatures will be.
It's nice to finally have some insight into these sorts of things, but my favorite type of winter precipitation is still none.