You look at your weather forecast and see “rain” for Friday, but “rain showers” for Saturday and Sunday. No, your meteorologist isn’t trying to confuse you. While it may make little difference to your weekend plans (which will now be soggy regardless), there is a difference in these two terms and in the type of precipitation you can expect.
The words rain and showers are simply two ways of expressing how intense the rain will fall, and how long it will last. Rain falls steadily, lasts for hours or days, and is generally widespread across your city. If you were to drive from your home to the airport in the rain, you could expect it to rain during the entire trip.
On the other hand, rain showers are considered to be light rainfall that has a shorter duration than rain, and is more scattered across an area. (When you hear “showers” think of an actual shower bath). Again, if you were traveling to the airport, but this time during a rain shower, you’d drive in the rain, but it might not be wet during the entire trip.
Look To The Clouds
Observing how the rain is falling down is a good first step to recognizing the difference between rain and showers. But it won’t always provide a clear answer.
If you’re a cloud watcher, you may be able to tell the two apart by looking up at the clouds overhead. Rain tends to fall from flat, gray stratus clouds. But if you look up and see puffy cumulus or cumulonimbus clouds, you can bet showers are falling.
The weather conditions that produce rain and rain showers also differ. If a warm or cold front is crossing your state, rain is sure to follow. But, if it’s simply a balmy day, don’t be surprised if showers pop up in the late afternoon; the heat warms pockets of air which then rise up high into the atmosphere, cooling as they journey upward and triggering water vapor within them to condense and eventually fall out of the sky as raindrops.
What about Drizzle? Drizzle and sprinkles are two more types of rain that are often hard to tell apart. Think of it like this: drizzle is more of a fine mist, whereas sprinkles are a very light rain whose drops fall more sporadically.
Luckily, both are fairly easy to tell apart from rain and rain showers. For one, their raindrops will be much smaller and won’t amount to much water collected in your rain gauge.
Tiffany Means is a freelance writer and a degreed meteorologist. She specializes in weather forecasting and enjoys making the subject of weather (and the science behind it) more relatable. She currently resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.