Understanding the Various Temperatures of Rain Drops

How Air Conditions Affect Droplets' Warmth or Coolness

Drops Of Rain On Glass
Gabriela Tulian / Getty Images

If you've ever wondered why getting soaked in a rainstorm makes you cold, it's not just because the precipitation moistens your clothes and skin, the temperature of the rainwater itself is also to blame.

On average, raindrops have temperatures somewhere between 32 F (0 C) and 80 F (27 C). Whether a raindrop is closer to the cold or warm end of that range depends on a number of things including what temperature it starts at high up in the clouds and what the air temperatures are in the upper atmosphere where those clouds are floating. As you can imagine, both of these things vary from day to day, season to season, and location to location, which means there is no "usual" temperature for raindrops. 

Temperatures in the atmosphere interact with raindrops, starting from their birth high up in a cloud to their final target—you and the ground—drastically affecting the temperature of these droplets of water.

Cold Beginnings and Cold Descents

Surprisingly, most of the world's rainfall begins as snow high up in the clouds overhead—even on a hot summer day! That's because temperatures in the upper portions of clouds are well below freezing, sometimes as low as -58 F. The snowflakes and ice crystals found in clouds at these cold temperatures and heights warm and melt into liquid water as they pass below the freezing level, then exit the parent cloud and enter the warmer air below it.

As the melted raindrops continue to descend, they can become cooler through evaporation in a process that meteorologists call "evaporative cooling," wherein rain falls into drier air, causing that air's dewpoint to increase and its temperature to lower.

Evaporative cooling is also one reason why rainfall is associated with cooler air, which explains why meteorologists sometimes claim it is raining or snowing high up in the upper atmosphere and will soon do so out your window—the longer this happens, the more the air near the ground will moisten and cool, allowing the precipitation a path to fall to the surface.

Air Temperatures Above Ground Affect Final Raindrop Temp

In general, as precipitation nears the ground, the atmosphere's temperature profile—the range of air temperatures that the precipitation passes through—from around the 700 millibar level down to the surface determines the type of precipitation (rain, snow, sleet, or freezing rain) that will reach the ground.

If this temperature is above freezing, the precipitation will, of course, be rain, but how warm above freezing they are will determine how cool the raindrops will be once they hit the ground. On the other hand, if the temperature is below freezing, the precipitation will fall as snow, sleet, or freezing rain depending on how much lower than freezing the range of air temperatures is.

If you've ever experienced a rain shower that was warm to the touch, it's because the rain's temperature is above the current surface air temperature. This occurs when temperatures from 700 millibars (3,000 meters) down are quite warm but a shallow layer of cooler air blankets the surface.