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How'd you like that graupel?

Unusual cold weather inspires some meteorological education

Graupel accumulates on soil and plants Wednesday in northern Carmichael.

Graupel accumulates on soil and plants Wednesday in northern Carmichael. Kathy Morrison

The white stuff falling from the sky looked like hail, but it didn't bounce. When I picked it up, the little pellets were soft and mushy, not hard. It didn't seem to be snow, either. What was this? 

The National Weather Service in Sacramento came to the rescue with the answer: It's graupel. (That's a Germanic word, a diminutive of Graupe, meaning "pearl barley," Merriam-Webster says.)

On its Facebook page, the NWS explained: Graupel is composed of snowflakes that collect supercooled water droplets on their outer surfaces. It forms "when it's very cold aloft but there are above-freezing temperatures at the surface." 

If it's soft/wet, it's graupel. If it's hard/solid, it's hail, the weather service says.

Hail, by the way, is defined as frozen raindrops of ice from thunderstorms. It forms "in strong upward winds in thunderstorms" then falls to the ground before melting.

Sleet is another thing: At ground level, sleet is only common during winter storms when falling snow hits a layer of warm air and starts to melt. The resulting droplets hit a deep layer of cold air just above the surface and refreeze into sleet before hitting the ground. 

Having read up on graupel, I went down a meteorological rabbit hole of cold-weather terms. (I'm a California kid -- I didn't grow up knowing this stuff.) Here are some of the more interesting ones I found, thanks to the National Weather Service, the National Severe Storms Laboratory and other weather sources.

-- Freezing rain. Subtly different than sleet, it occurs when snowflakes descend into a warmer layer of air and melt completely. When these liquid water drops fall through another thin layer of freezing air just above the surface, they don't have enough time to refreeze before reaching the ground. Because they are “supercooled,” they instantly refreeze upon contact with anything that that is at or below 32 degrees F, creating a glaze of ice on everything.  Side note: A significant accumulation of freezing rain lasting several hours or more is called an ice storm.

-- Ice fog. This is a type of fog consisting of fine ice crystals suspended in the air; it's apparently rare except for the coldest parts of the world. More common is a freezing fog, which occurs when liquid fog droplets freeze to surfaces.

-- Pogonip. Another term (of Native American origin) for ice fog.

-- Sea smoke. This occurs when freezing winds flow across warmer water, causing fog to rise up and create a swirly wall. Sea smoke can resemble a giant wave.

-- Snow devil. Like a dust devil,  it involves swirling air. It forms when snow is raised from the ground in the form of a whirling column of varying height with a small diameter and an approximately vertical axis. Also called a "snownado."

-- Thundersnow. According to the NWS, this is caused by an intense updraft that creates hail and super-cold water droplets, leading to snow being the primary precipitation rather than rain.

Stay safe and warm, gardeners, whatever weather you encounter this weekend. The garden will survive.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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