RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Central North Carolina is watching for wintry weather this weekend, with a mixed bag of winter precipitation in the forecast. Forecasting sleet and freezing rain can get tricky quickly.

But why?

To get an understanding of what we see on the ground, we have to go up into the atmosphere. 

An easy way to think of the atmosphere is like layers of a cake. Whether the layers are warm or cold above have an impact on what type of precipitation falls to the ground. 

When all the layers are cold from up high in the clouds all the way down to the surface, we get to enjoy a winter wonderland of snow. While the snow is pretty to play in, it can cause travel headaches. 

Here in central North Carolina, we don’t see a multitude of snow events on a regular basis.

So when we do have one in the forecast, your snow driving skills may be a bit rusty. A few quick tips to stay safe if you must hit the roads include first and foremost, slow down! It’s a good idea to drive below the speed limit and take it easy. 

When driving in snow, you do not want to use your cruise control. Another tip is to allow for extra distance between you and the cars around you. To avoid potentially skidding, make sure you apply your brakes gently. 

Now we’ve talk about snow and some ways to drive safely (if you must get out on the roads), but what about when we throw a warm layer into our atmospheric cake? 

Depending on how deep that warm layer is, we can either see sleet or freezing rain. 

If the warm layer is shallow above the cold ground, the snowflakes that are falling will only partially melt through the warm layer. Once they move into a deep-freezing layer again, they refreeze into sleet. If there is enough sleet falling, it can even accumulate like snow! Sleet can cause tricky travel too, so be safe if heading outside. 

Now it’s time to talk about freezing rain, where a little accumulation can cause big headaches. Freezing rain occurs when falling snowflakes melt completely in a deeper warm layer.

The layer just above the ground is cold but it is shallow. This leads to the drops freezing onto whatever they come into contact with. That can be the road, trees, power lines, you name it! 

Light accumulations of freezing rain can lead to dangerous travel conditions. Heavy amounts can lead to power outages and downed trees. Freezing rain is actually more hazardous to drive in compared to snow. That’s because you can more easily lose control of your car as well as watch out for falling power lines and branches. 

One thing to remember is that the forecast for this weekend can and will change! But what remains the same is the road hazards associated with winter weather.

It is always a good idea to stay home if you can during wintry weather, and know you can stay with CBS 17 for the latest updates.