What was up with today’s “Dippin’ Dots” rain?

By Mike Young | Editor-in-Chief

When you live in a place like West Lafayette, you learn to check the weather every morning before you head out to class. But if you reached for your umbrella after reading today’s forecast of “100% chance of precipitation,” you should’ve considered grabbing a Styrofoam bowl and a plastic spoon as well.

“Did somebody just order a ton of dippin dots to be dropped on Purdue?” Ryan McDonnell (@rmcdonn) asked on twitter. Yes, that’s right. On President’s Day in 2014, it rained Dippin’ Dots.

We all remember Dippin’ Dots from our childhood. The ice cream snack was invented in 1987 by Curt Jones, a graduate of Southern Illinois Univeristy – Carbondale. It was sold in malls and franchises across the country for over a decade until his company went bankrupt in 2011. Marketed as the “Ice Cream of the Future,” Dippin’ Dots has experienced a comeback in recent years after it was bought and reorganized in 2012.

Its appeal – the fun texture of its tiny ice cream pods – remains the as strong now as it was when the product was launched. Maybe that’s why twitter was ablaze about the Dippin’ Dots blizzard of ’14.

Of course, Dippin’ Dots has to actually manufacture their product – if it just fell from the sky, the company would’ve gone bankrupt much sooner. The real stuff is made using something you may have fooled around with in high school chemistry – liquid nitrogen. From the company’s website:

Dippin’ Dots are beads of cryogenically frozen ice cream. We use a combination of natural ice cream ingredients, the same found in conventional ice cream, and flash freeze it into tiny beads. The ice cream is then packaged and shipped to our retailers. All Dippin’ Dots for our domestic customers are produced at our headquarters in Paducah, Kentucky.

Today’s unusual ice-rain, on the other hand, is formed by different process.

Graupel – “The Precipitation of the Future”

I reached out to Grant McKercher, a senior majoring in atmospheric science, for an explanation. In an email, Grant explained that the precipitation phenomenon that blanketed Purdue has a name – graupel.

We saw graupel today with a convective snowstorm due to the temperature of the vertical profile of the atmosphere. We saw other forms of precipitation today too, including snow, sleet, and freezing rain.

As the system moved through this afternoon, some layers of the atmosphere remained warm enough to melt snow and ice, while other layers were cold, which allowed freezing rain to stick to snowflakes on the way to the ground. The precipitation type changed very quickly due to the temperature oscillations.

We saw this weather mainly because Lafayette happened to be located in a region between snow and rain precipitation, as places to the North saw more snowfall and areas to the South saw mixed winter precipitation and rain.

As it turns out, since graupel is made up of a combination of snow and freezing rain, it doesn’t taste as good as Dippin’ Dots. I was also slightly disappointed to learn there was no liquid nitrogen involved. So while today may have been a letdown for ice cream connoisseurs, weather-watchers got a unique chance to witness some unusual precipitation.

And if that wasn’t exciting enough, @Purdue_Weather reported “thundersnow” at the University of Illinois. “Thundersnow occurs when snowstorms are convective like thunderstorms, in that the storm causes air to rise and lightning may occur,” Grant explains.

Yeah, I’ll take Dippin’ Dots floating down from the heavens over snow and a thunderstorm any day.