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Freezing rain is the name given to rain that falls when surface temperatures are below freezing. Unlike a mixture of rain and snow, ice pellets (both of which are sometimes called "sleet"), or hail, freezing rain is made entirely of liquid droplets. The raindrops become supercooled while passing through a sub-freezing layer of air many hundreds of feet above the ground, and then freeze upon impact with any surface they encounter. The resulting ice, called glaze, can accumulate to a thickness of several centimeters. The METAR code for freezing rain is FZRA.
A storm that produces a significant thickness of glaze ice from freezing rain is often referred to as an ice storm. Freezing rain is notorious for causing travel problems on roadways, breaking tree limbs, and downing power lines. It is also known for being extremely dangerous to aircraft since the ice can effectively 'remould' the shape of the airfoil and flight control surfaces. (See atmospheric icing.)
Usually freezing rain is associated with the approach of a warm front when cold air, at or below freezing temperature, is trapped in the lower levels of the atmosphere as warmth streams in aloft. This happens, for instance, when a low pressure system moves from the Mississippi River Valley toward the Appalachian Mountains and the Saint Lawrence River Valley of North America, in the cold season, and there is a strong high pressure system sitting further east. The warm air from the Gulf of Mexico is often the fuel for freezing precipitation.
Freezing rain develops as falling snow encounters a layer of warm air usually around 800 mbar (800 hPa) level, then the snow completely melts and becomes rain. As the rain continues to fall, it passes through a thin layer of cold air just above the surface and cools to a temperature below freezing (0 °C or 32 °F). However, the drops themselves do not freeze, a phenomenon called supercooling (or forming "supercooled drops"). When the supercooled drops strike ground, power lines, tree branches, aircraft, or anything else below 0 °C (32 °F), they instantly freeze, forming a thin film of ice, hence freezing rain.
Surface observations by manned or automatic stations are the only direct confirmation of freezing rain. One can never see directly freezing rain, rain or snow on weather radars, Doppler or conventional. However, it is possible to estimate the area covered by freezing rain with radars indirectly.
The intensity of the radar echoes (reflectivity) is proportional to the form (water or ice) of the precipitation and its diameter. In fact, rain has much stronger reflective power than snow but its diameter is much smaller. So the reflectivity of rain coming from melted snow is only slightly higher. However, in the layer where the snow is melting, the wet flakes still have a large diameter and are coated with water so the returns to the radar is much stronger.
The presence of this brightband indicates that there is a warm layer above ground where snow melts. This could be producing rain on the ground or the possibility of freezing rain if the temperature is below freezing. This artifact can be located, like on the image at left, with a cross-section through radar data. The height and slope of the brightband will give clues to the extent of the region where melting occurs. Then it is possible to associate this clue with surface observations and numerical models prediction to produce output such as the ones seen on television weather programs that divide radar echoes into rain, mixed and snow precipitations.
At ground level
Freezing rain often causes major power outages by forming glaze ice. When the freezing rain or drizzle is light and not prolonged, the ice formed is thin. It usually causes only minor damage, relieving trees of their dead branches etc. When large quantities accumulate, however, it is one of the most dangerous types of winter hazard. When the ice layer exceeds approximately 0.25 inches (6.4 mm), tree limbs with branches heavily coated in ice can break off under the enormous weight and fall onto power lines. Windy conditions, when present, will exacerbate the damage. Power lines coated with ice become extremely heavy, causing support poles, insulators and lines to break. The ice that forms on roadways makes vehicle travel dangerous. Unlike snow, wet ice provides almost no traction, and vehicles will slide even on gentle slopes. Because freezing rain does not hit the ground as an ice pellet (called "sleet") but still as a rain droplet, it conforms to the shape of the ground, or object such as a tree branch or car. This makes one thick layer of ice, often called "glaze".
Freezing rain and glaze on a large scale is called an ice storm. Effects on plants can be severe, as they cannot support the weight of the ice. Trees may snap as they are dormant and fragile during winter weather. Pine trees are also victims of ice storms as their needles will catch the ice, but not be able to support the weight. In February 1994, a severe ice storm caused over $1 billion in damage in the Southern United States, primarily in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. One particularly severe ice storm struck eastern Canada and northern parts of New York and New England in the North American ice storm of 1998.
Freezing rain is considered to be an extreme hazard to aircraft, as it causes very rapid structural icing. Most helicopters and small airplanes lack the necessary deicing equipment to fly in freezing rain of any intensity, and heavy freezing rain can overwhelm even the most sophisticated deicing systems on large airplanes. Icing can increase an aircraft's weight but not typically enough to cause a hazard. The main danger comes from the ice changing the shape of its airfoils. This will reduce lift and increase drag. All three factors increase stalling speed and reduce aircraft performance, making it very difficult to climb or even maintain level altitude.
An aircraft can most easily evade freezing rain by moving into warmer air — under most conditions, this would require aircraft to descend, which it can usually do safely and easily even with a moderate accumulation of structural ice. However, freezing rain is accompanied by a temperature inversion aloft, meaning that aircraft actually need to climb to move into warmer air — a potentially difficult and dangerous task with even a small amount of ice accumulation.
For example, in 1994, American Eagle Flight 4184 encountered heavy air traffic and poor weather that postponed the arrival of this flight at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where it was to have landed en route from Indianapolis, Indiana. The ATR-72, a twin-engine turboprop carrying 68 people, entered a holding pattern 65 miles (105 km) southeast of O'Hare. As the plane circled, supercooled cloud droplets, freezing rain or freezing drizzle formed a ridge of ice on the upper surface of its wings, eventually causing the aircraft's autopilot to suddenly disconnect and the pilots to lose control. The ATR disintegrated on impact with a field below; all passengers and crew were killed.
- Glossary of Meteorology. F. Retrieved on 2008-02-17.
- National Weather Service Forecast Office, La Crosse, Wisconsin. Significant Weather Phenomena Matrix. Retrieved on 2006-12-08.
- University of Illinois. Cyclones and Fronts: the development of freezing rain. Retrieved on 2006-12-08.
- University of Illinois. Cyclones and Fronts: the definition of freezing rain. Retrieved on 2007-12-16.
- "Glaze Ice". Retrieved 2009-07-18.
- Oblack, Rachelle. "Glaze Ice Definition". Retrieved 2009-07-18.
- Munroe, Susan. "The Canadian ice storm of 1998". Retrieved 2009-07-18.
- "Glaze Ice". Retrieved 2009-07-18.
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