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What is Graupel?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated: May 21, 2024

Some people who live in snowy regions may notice two different types of snow during the winter storm season. One is the familiar crystalline snowflake, which falls from the sky and packs tightly on the ground. Another form of frozen precipitation, however, often falls during very cold weather, and has the consistency of small pellets. This type of snow is known as graupel, also called soft hail by meteorologists.

While graupel has the appearance of white snow pellets, its formation is closer to that of hailstones. Winter storm clouds often contain water droplets which have cooled far below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius without turning to ice. Sometimes those supercooled droplets contact dust particles or ice crystals and form solid hail. Other times, the supercooled droplets attach themselves to snowflakes and freeze instantly. The air currents within the storm clouds continue to push the ice-covered snow flakes through supercooled water until they become too heavy and fall to the ground as graupel.

Because graupel is white and powdery, many people consider it to be a form of snow. Others argue that its formation is similar to hail, so graupel should be considered a form of soft hail. Although graupel typically falls during cold winter storms, it has been known to form along with icy hail during severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The air temperature near the ground is not as critical for graupel formation as the conditions thousands of feet in the air.

While graupel is not considered especially hazardous in its own right, it can create some dangerous conditions on the ground during the winter season. If a layer of traditional snow is followed by a substantial layer of graupel, the next layer of snow will not pack securely. This instability could lead to an avalanche in higher elevations, since the layer of graupel would act like ball bearings between two solid layers of packed snow.

Some snow skiers do welcome an occasional layer of graupel because it can increase downhill speeds as the skis slide over the pellets. Too much graupel can make conditions on the slopes too unstable, however. This type of snow does not pack together very well, which does not make it popular for other outdoor winter activities. A heavy downburst of graupel can create temporary white-out conditions for drivers, but it does not stick or build up on windshields or roads in the same way heavy traditional snowflakes can.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to All The Science, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On Nov 11, 2011

@orangey03 – I bet your puppies were adorable playing in the graupel! That stuff is super bouncy, and it definitely feels different that snowflakes while it is falling.

I stood out in the snow last year as it fell, and the first few flakes felt so gentle on my face. Suddenly, I felt something hard hit my skin. It stung, so I quickly turned my face downward.

I held out my gloved hand and caught a few pieces on the cloth. It was graupel!

Little bits of graupel were beginning to bounce off of my jacket. It didn't hurt when they hit my clothing, because they didn't have enough force behind them to penetrate it. It sure didn't feel good on my exposed skin, though!

By orangey03 — On Nov 11, 2011

I saw graupel bouncing off of my concrete driveway this past winter. It was so tiny that it looked like little white fleas having a party!

I had puppies at the time that were only a few months old, and they were fascinated by the graupel! They tried to catch it in their mouths, and once it began to accumulate, they stuck their faces into it and tried to eat it.

I had to be very careful walking on the graupel there. Once, my boots started to roll across it like they would glide over marbles. Though it's tiny, it can be very dangerous.

By kylee07drg — On Nov 10, 2011

This past winter, an abnormally high amount of snow fell where I live. This snow was mixed with graupel, so people had quite a bit of fun sledding.

I did not own a sled, since we rarely receive more than an inch or two of snow each year. So, I improvised and used a large, slick, empty dogfood bag to sit on while coasting downhill in the pasture behind my house.

The slick surface of my makeshift sled combined with the shape of the graupel made me slide very quickly down the slopes. A couple of times, I was scared I was about to land in the ditch, because it's hard to control where you are going when the ground is so icy.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to All The Science, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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