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What is Precipitation?

Precipitation is the falling of water from the sky in different forms. They all form from the
clouds which are raised about 8 to 16 kilometers (4 to 11 miles) above the ground in the
earth’s troposphere. Precipitation takes place whenever any or all forms of water
particles fall from these high levels of the atmosphere and reach the earth surface. The
drop to the ground is caused by frictional drag and gravity. When one falling particle
drops from the cloud, it leaves behind a turbulent wake, causing faster and continued

The (clouds) crystallized ice may reach the ground as ice pellets or snow or may melt
and change into raindrops before reaching the surface of the earth depending on the
atmospheric temperatures. For this reason, there are many different types of
precipitation namely rain, snow, sleet, freezing rain, hail, snow grains and diamond dust.
They are forms of water that fall from the sky’s frozen clouds.

“In meteorology, precipitation is any product of the condensation of atmospheric water

vapor that falls under gravity. The main forms of precipitation include drizzle, rain, sleet,
snow, graupel and hail. Precipitation occurs when a portion of the atmosphere becomes
saturated with water vapor, so that the water condenses and “precipitates. Thus, fog
and mist are not precipitation but suspensions, because the water vapor does not
condense sufficiently to precipitate.”

Different Forms of Precipitation


A. Rain
Rain is any liquid that drops from the
clouds in the sky. Rain is described
as water droplets of 0.5 mm or
larger. Droplets less than half a
millimeter are defined as drizzle.
Raindrops frequently fall when small
cloud particles strike and bind
together, creating bigger drops. As
this process continues, the drops get
bigger and bigger to an extent where they become too heavy suspend on the air. As a
result, the gravity pulls then down to the earth.

When high in the air, the raindrops start falling as ice crystals or snow but melt when as
they proceed down the earth through the warmer air. Rainfall rates vary from time to
time, for example, light rain ranges from rates of 0.01 to 0.1 inches per hour, moderate
rain from 0.1 to .3 inches per hour, and heavy rain above 0.3 inches per hour. Rain is
the most common component of the water cycle and replenishes most of the fresh
water on the earth.

B. Drizzle
Drizzle is very light rain. It is stronger than mist
but less than a shower. Mist is a thin fog with
condensation near the ground. Fog is made up
of ice crystals or cloud water droplets
suspended in the air near or at the earth’s
surface. Drizzle droplets are smaller than 0.5
millimeters (0.02 inches) in diameter. They
arise from low stratocumulus clouds. They
sometimes evaporate even before reaching the
ground due to their minute size. Drizzle can be
persistent is cold atmospheric temperatures.

A. Snow
Snow occurs almost every time there is rain. However, snow often melts before it
reaches the earth surface. It is precipitation in the form of virga or flakes of ice water
falling from the clouds. Snow is normally seen together with high, thin and weak cirrus
clouds. Snow can at times fall when the atmospheric
temperatures are above freezing, but it mostly occur in sub-
freezing air. When the temperatures are above freezing,
the snowflakes can partially melt but because of relatively
warm temperatures, the evaporation of the particles occurs
almost immediately.

This evaporation leads to cooling just around the snowflake

and makes it to reach to the ground as snow. Snow has
fluffy, white and soft structure and its formation is in
different shapes and ways, namely flat plates and thin
needles. Each type of snow forms under specific
combinations of atmospheric humidity and temperatures. The process of snow
precipitation is called snowfall.

B. Hail
Hailstones are big balls and irregular
lumps of ice that fall from large
thunderstorms. Hail is purely a solid
precipitation. As opposed to sleets that
can form in any weather when there are
thunderstorms, hailstones are
predominately experienced in the winter or
cold weather. Hailstones are mostly made
up of water ice and measure between 0.2
inches (5 millimeters) and 6 inches (15
centimeters) in diameter. This ranges in size of a pea’s diameter to that larger than a

For this reason, they are highly damaging to crops, tearing leaves apart and reducing
their value. Violent thunderstorms with very strong updrafts usually have the capability
to hold ice against the gravitational pull, which brings about the hailstones when they
eventually escape and fall to the ground. So, hailstones are formed from super-cooled
droplets that slowly freeze and results in sheet of clear ice.
C. Sleet (Ice Pellets)
Sleet takes place in freezing
atmospheric conditions. Sleet, also
known as ice pellets, form when snow
falls into a warm layer hen melts into
rain and then the rain droplets falls into
a freezing layer of air that is cold
enough to refreeze the raindrops into
ice pellets. Hence, sleet is defined as a
form of precipitation composed of small
and semi-transparent balls of ice. They
should not be confused with hailstones
as they are smaller in size.

Sleet is often experienced during thunderstorms and is normally accompanied with

frosty ice crystals that form white deposits and a mixture of semisolid rain and slushy
snow. Ice pellets (sleet) bounce when they hit the ground or any other solid objects and
falls with a hard striking sound. Sleet don not freeze into a solid mass except when it
combines with freezing rain.

D. Diamond Dust

Diamond dust are extremely small ice crystals

usually formed at low levels and at
temperatures below -30 °C. Diamond dust got
its name from the sparkling effect which is
created when light reflects on the ice crystals
in the air. You can read more about diamond
dust here.

How precipitation is formed?

All precipitation develops in clouds, and clouds are formed when water vapor in the
atmosphere cools and condenses. As the water vapor condenses into it forms droplets
and if the clouds develops within or moved into the part of the atmosphere that is below
freezing then the droplets form ice crystals.
The cooling process which first forms clouds can happen in many different ways.

Air may be forced to rise along the warm front and as it cools, deep layers of clouds can
develop – sometimes reaching many thousands of meters all the way down to the
ground level.

Air may also be forced to rise as a cold front approaches. In this instance a wedge of
cold dense air pushes under the warm moist air ahead of it – lifting it.

Weather fronts tend to bring generally cloudy skies with relatively long spells of rain and
drizzle or snow in the colder times of the year. And finally air may be forced to rise,
simply because it’s heated by the earth’s surface and it convects.

This is what we often see on a summer’s day with cumulus clouds building up and
sometimes developing into cumulonimbus clouds. Then we can get very heavy rain and
even hale.

Types of Precipitation
Depending upon the way in which the air is lifted and cooled so as to cause
precipitation, we have three types of precipitation, as given below:

 Cyclonic Precipitation
 Convective Precipitation
 Orographic Precipitation
 Cyclonic Precipitation

Cyclonic precipitation is caused by lifting of an air mass due to the pressure difference.
Cyclonic precipitation may be either frontal or non-frontal cyclonic precipitation.

1. Frontal precipitation: It results from the lifting of warm and moist air on one
side of a frontal surface over colder, denser air on the other side. A front may
be warm front or cold front depending upon whether there is active or passive
accent of warm air mass over cold air mass.
2. Non-frontal precipitation: If low pressure occurs in an area (called cyclone), air
will flow horizontally from the surrounding area (high pressure), causing the air
in the low-pressure area to lift. When the lifted warm-air cools down at higher
attitude, non-frontal cyclonic precipitation will occur.

In the case of a cold front, a colder, denser air mass lifts the warm, moist air
ahead of it. As the air rises, it cools and its moisture condenses to produce clouds and
precipitation. Due to the steep slope of a cold front, forceful rising motion is often
produced, leading to the development of showers and occasionally severe
In the case of a warm front, the warm, less dense air rises up and over the colder
air ahead of the front. Again, the air cools as it rises and its moisture condenses to
produce clouds and precipitation. Warm fronts have a gentler slope and generally move
more slowly than cold fronts, so the rising motion along warm fronts is much more
gradual. Precipitation that develops in advance of a surface warm front is typically
steady and more widespread than precipitation associated with a cold front. Warm front
precipitation is generally light to moderate.

 Convective Precipitation

Convective precipitation is caused by natural rising of warmer, lighter air in

colder, denser surroundings. Generally, this kind of precipitation occurs in tropics,
where on a hot day, the ground surface gets heated unequally, causing the warmer air
to lift up as the colder air comes to take its place. The vertical air currents develop
tremendous velocities. Convective precipitation occurs in the form of showers of high
intensity and short duration.
 Orographic Precipitation

Orographic precipitation is caused by air masses which strike some natural

topographic barriers like mountains, and cannot move forward and hence rise up,
causing condensation and precipitation. All the precipitation we have in Himalayan
region is because of this nature. It is rich in moisture because of their long travel over

Mechanism to Form Precipitation

• All precipitation originates from

parcels of moist air that have been
cooled below dew point

• Lifting mechanism to cool the air.

• Formation of cloud elements

(droplets/ice crystals)

• Growth of cloud elements.

• Sufficient accumulation of cloud

Mechanism producing precipitation three mechanisms are needed for formation of

1. Lifting and Cooling - Lifting of air mass to higher altitudes causes cooling of air.
2. Condensation - conversion of water vapor into liquid droplets.
3. Droplet Formation - Growth of droplets is required if the liquid water present in a
cloud is to reach ground against the lifting mechanism of air.

Measurement of Precipitation
1. Amount of precipitation
2. Intensity of precipitation
3. Duration of precipitation
4. Arial extent of precipitation

Measurement Methods
Measurement of precipitation (Rain and Snow) can be done by various devices. These
measuring devices and techniques are;

A. Rain Gauges
A device for collecting and measuring the amount of rain that falls.

B. Snow Gauges
A snow gauge is a type of instrument used by meteorologists and hydrologists to
gather and measure the amount of solid precipitation (as opposed to liquid
precipitation that is measured by a rain gauge) over a set period of time.

C. Radars
Radar is an object-detection system that uses radio waves to determine the
range, angle, or velocity of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships,
spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain.

D. Satellites
In the context of spaceflight, a satellite is an artificial object which has been
intentionally placed into orbit. Such objects are sometimes called artificial
satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as Earth's Moon.
E. Scratching of snow packs
Snowpack forms from layers of snow that accumulate in geographic regions and
high altitudes where the climate includes cold weather for extended periods
during the year. Snow packs are an important water resource that
feed streams and rivers as they melt.

F. Water equivalent in snow packs

Snow melt is a large source of fresh water in many areas of the world, making its
measurement important for the management of water resources. Snow water
equivalent (SWE) is the measurement of how much water is present within a

Types of Rain Gauges

1. Non recording rain gauges
2. Recording rain gauges

 Non recording rain gauges

It is a rain gage which does not provide the distribution of amount of precipitation
in a day. It simply gives the amount of precipitation after 24 hours (daily precipitation)
 Recording rain gauges
These rain gauges are also called integrating rain gauges since they record
cumulative rainfall. In addition to the total amount of rainfall at a station, it gives the
times of onset and cessation of rains (thereby gives the duration of rainfall events)

Types of Recorded Rain Gauges

There are three main types of recording rain gauges:

1. Float type rain gages

The rise of float with increasing

catch of rainfall is recorded.
Some gauges must be emptied
manually while others are
emptied automatically using
self-starting siphons. In most
gauges oil or mercury is the
float and is placed in the
receiver, but in some cases the
receiver rests on a bath of oil or mercury and the float measures the rise of oil or
mercury displaced by the increasing weight of the receiver as the rainfall catch freezes.
Float may get damaged by rainfall catch

2. Tipping bucket type rain gages

 Consists of 30 cm dia. sharp edge receiver.

 At the end of receiver funnel is provided.
 Under the funnel a pair of buckets are pivoted (the
central point which balances) in such a way that
when one bucket receives 0.25 mm (0.01”) of rainfall
it tips (to fall or turn over), discharging its contents
into reservoir bringing other bucket under funnel.
 Tipping of bucket completes an electric circuit
causing the movement of pen to mark on clock
driven revolving drum which carries a record sheet
3. Weighing type rain gages
Consists of a receiver bucket supported by a spring
or lever balance or any other weighing mechanism.

The movement of bucket due to its increasing weight

is transmitted to a pen which traces the record on a
clock driven chart.

Measurements of Snow
In the field, snow scientists often excavate a snow pit within which to make basic
measurements and observations. Observations can describe features caused by wind,
water percolation, or snow unloading from trees. Water percolation into a snowpack can
create flow fingers and ponding or flow along capillary barriers, which can refreeze into
horizontal and vertical solid ice formations within the snowpack. Among the
measurements of the properties of snow packs that the International Classification for
Seasonal Snow on the Ground includes are: snow height, snow water equivalent, snow
strength, and extent of snow cover.

Snowfall measurement is typically more difficult than rainfall. Snowfall measurement

takes a little more time.

A snow gauge is a type of instrument used

by meteorologists and hydrologists to gather and
measure the amount of solid precipitation (as opposed to
liquid precipitation that is measured by a rain gauge) over
a set period of time.

The snow gauge consists of two parts,

a copper catchment container and the funnel shaped
gauge itself. The actual gauge is mounted on a pipe
outdoors and is approximately 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) high,
while the container is 51.5 cm (4 ft 2.25 in) long.
Measurement Procedure

When snow is collected, the container is removed and replaced with a spare one.
The snow is then melted while it is still in the container, and then poured into a glass
measuring graduate. While the depth of snow is normally measured in centimeters, the
measurement of melted snow (water equivalent) is in millimeters.

An estimate of the snow depth can be obtained by multiplying the water

equivalent by ten. However, this multiplier can vary over a wide range (many say the
range is 5 to 30, but the National Snow and Ice Data Center has quoted a range as
wide as 3 to 100), depending on the water content of the snow (how "dry" it is), so this
only provides, at best, a rough estimate of snow depth.

Measuring Snow:

 Rain gages are inadequate for measuring frozen precipitation

 Measurements of accumulated snow are used
 Water equivalent of snow, a 10 to 1 ratio is assumed
 Automated snow pillows are common in many locations
 Detect snow weight and convert directly to water equivalent