Sleet

February 05, 2022

We have been getting predictions of a major storm expected to hit our area for over a week.  By Thursday afternoon, the snow was falling heavily from St. Louis to Indianapolis to Cleveland and even into western New York.  In Texas, officials are urging residents to stay home as ice, sleet, and snow accumulate on roads and the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport suspended operations.  Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky were expecting a thick layer of ice, and ice storm warnings were in effect through Friday morning from Arkansas to Ohio.  One of the dangers of this system was the temperature dropped as the storm came through.  That meant it began as rain, turned to sleet, both froze into ice, and then snow covered it all.  Where we live in the River Valley did not get the accumulations of snow that fell farther north, but we did get sleet.  Our patio became a sheet of ice, and the chain-link fence and trees all had a good coating by late Thursday.  Can you say slick?

When I looked online, I found that the difference between snow, freezing rain, and sleet had to do with the temperature of the air.  For snow, the temperature from the clouds to the ground needs to be below freezing.   Freezing rain occurs when rain falls from warmer air in the clouds then passes through colder freezing air closer to the ground where it freezes on contact.  Freezing rain can be dangerous because it is able to coat trees, powerlines, and cars with a layer of ice.  Sleet also falls as rain but is different in that it hits below-freezing air quicker, causing it to hit the ground more solid than freezing rain.  Rather than freezing on an object or the ground, sleet bounces off the objects it strikes.  As sleet falls it fills in the empty spaces between the grass or ground rather than riding on top.  This makes it harder to gauge the amount of sleet that falls relative to snow. 

By the time I got up on Friday the storm had passed.  We were left with a layer of ice covered by about 2 inches (5 cm) of snow.  Since the ground was under a blanket of snow, I was surprised that we did not have any birds in our feeders.  I had filled the feeders prior to the storm on Thursday knowing the birds would be hungry.  I read my paper and then went back to my office to see what others were saying.  My birding site was lit up with stories and pictures of birds flocking to other feeders across in my area and the state.  At first, I could not understand why others had birds while I did not.  Then I remembered the sleet.  When I checked the feeders, they were filled with snow.  When I knocked the snow off, there was a half inch (1 cm) of ice covering the seed.  I knocked the ice out as best I could and refilled the feeders.  I barely got inside before the birds began to arrive.

Thoughts:  By Friday the storm had moved east and was raging from Ohio to Maine.  My sister in Maine told me they also got rain and sleet prior to the snow, on top of the snow they already had.  Adam Douty, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, said the snow, ice, and even the tornado that came with the storm were not out of the ordinary for this time of year.  While there was a large amount of icing in Tennessee and Arkansas, 8 to 12 inches of snow for much of the Midwest is not uncommon.  “It’s a good snowstorm . . . but it’s nothing unusual.”  While the temperature fluctuations we are experiencing are all within the range of normal, shifting back and forth from well above the average high to well below the average low is not.  Statistically, averages and means tend to flatten the extremes over longer periods of time.  Humans have learned to adapt and change for these extremes.  Plants and animals are not so lucky.  It is harder to adapt to forage when your seed is covered by three inches of ice and snow.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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