Air Masses and Fronts

Two fundamental assertions about weather and why there is weather:

  1. Differential heating of the surface of the earth.
  2. Heating of the lower atmosphere by energy transfer from the surface.

Air Mass

Air Mass is an extremely large body of air whose properties of temperature and moisture content (humidity), at any given altitude, are fairly similar in any horizontal direction.

Source Regions are simply geographic areas where an air mass originates. Should be:

  1. uniform surface composition - flat
  2. light surface winds

The longer the air mass stays over its source region, the more likely it will acquire the properties of the surface below.

Classification: 4 general air mass classifications categorized according to the source region.

  1. polar latitudes P - located poleward of 60 degrees north and south
  2. tropical latitudes T - located within about 25 degrees of the equator
  3. continental c - located over large land masses--dry
  4. marine m - located over the oceans----moist

We can then make combinations of the above to describe various types of air masses.

cP continental polar cold, dry, stable

cT continental tropical hot, dry, stable air aloft--unstable surface air

mP maritime polar cool, moist, and unstable

mT maritime tropical warm, moist, usually unstable

Air masses in the U.S. include

cP -- wintertime bitter cold can extent to Southern US and even Florida causing crop damage. Require long, clear nights, which means strong radiational cooling of air near the surface. A stable air mass. Little moisture added so air is dry

mP -- Winter cP air moves over a region such as the NE Pacific, picking up some warmth and moisture from the warmer ocean. In the case of the Pacific NW mountains force the air to rise (orographic lifting) causing rain.

mT -- wintertime source for the SW US is the subtropical East Pacific Ocean. mT air that influences weather east of the Rocky Mountains comes from the Gulf of Mexico, but only influences winter weather in the SE states. Occasionally, slow moving weather systems in SW flow aloft can draw up moisture at mid and low levels producing precipitation.

cT -- Continental tropical air usually only influences the US in summertime as warm, dry air is pumped up off of the Mexican Plateau. It is usually fairly stable and dry, and if it becomes stagnant over the midwest, results in a drought. Deaths associated with the 1995 heat wave in the midwest were the result of cT and mT air which stagnated over the central and eastern part of the US this last summer.

Air masses can control the weather for a relatively long time period: from a period of days, to months. Most weather occurs along the periphery of these air masses at boundaries called fronts.


Front is the transition zone between air masses with distinctly different properties.

The differences in density are most often caused by temperature differences. Separate air masses with different humidities as well. We identify fronts by the movement of this transition zone and the properties that move over a geographical location. What weather changes do you expect when TV weather person says a cold front is moving through the area?

How do you identify a front on a surface weather map or by your own weather observations? Look for:

  1. Sharp temperature changes over a relatively short distance
  2. Change in moisture content
  3. Rapid shifts in wind direction
  4. Pressure changes
  5. Clouds and precipitation patterns

Types of Fronts:

A stationary front is characterized by no movement of the transition zone between two air masses.

A cold front is cold air displacing warm air.

Steep leading edge -- friction slows surface advance, moves quickly--25 knts up to 40 knts faster=steeper

General weather characteristics of a Cold Front Weather Feature	Before Frontal Passage	Region of Front		After Frontal Passage Winds		S-SW			gusty			W-NW
Temperature	Warm			Sudden decrease		Steady Cooling
Dew Point	high; remains steady	Steady			Decreases
Pressure	Falling steadily	Minimum; rapid rise	steady rise
Visibility	Fair to Poor		Poor then improving	good
Clouds		Ci, Cs Cb		Cb			Cu
Precipitation	showers			heavy precip.		clearing

A warm front is warm air displacing cool air diagram. Shallow leading edge warm air must "overrun" cold air--cold air recedes moves slow 10-15 knts

General weather characteristics of a Warm FrontWeather Feature	Before Frontal Passage	Region of Front		After Frontal PassageWinds		S-SE			Variable		S-SW
Temperature	Cool, slowly warming	steady rise		warmer
Dew Point	Steady Rise		Steady			Increases than steady
Pressure	Usually Falling		Levels off		slight rise, followed by fall
Visibility	Poor			Improving		fair
Clouds		Ci, Cs As Ns St fog	Stratus			clearing with scattered Sc
Precipitation	light to moderate	drizzle or nothing	usually none

There are two kinds of occluded fronts

Cold occlusion-cold front catches up with warm front. Ns, Tcu,Cb warm very cold

Warm occlusion mostly in NW. Warm cool mP off ocean cold cP warm occlusion. Precipitation is similar to the cold occlusion