Under some atmospheric conditions, snow crystals may encounter supercooled cloud droplets. These droplets, which have a diameter of about 10 µm, can exist in the liquid state at temperatures as low as −40 °C, far below the normal freezing point. Contact between a snow crystal and the supercooled droplets results in freezing of the liquid droplets onto the surface of the crystal. This process of crystal growth is known as accretion. Crystals that exhibit frozen droplets on their surfaces are referred to as rimed. When this process continues so that the shape of the original snow crystal is no longer identifiable, the resulting crystal is referred to as graupel.
The frozen droplets on the surface of rimed crystals are hard to resolve and the topography of a graupel particle is not easy to record with a light microscope because of the limited resolution and depth of field in the instrument. However, observations of snow crystals with a low-temperature scanning electron microscope (LT-SEM) clearly show cloud droplets measuring up to 50 µm on the surface of the crystals. The rime has been observed on all four basic forms of snow crystals, including plates, dendrites, columns and needles. As the riming process continues, the mass of frozen, accumulated cloud droplets obscures the identity of the original snow crystal, thereby giving rise to a graupel particle.