Understanding Weather Fronts: Types & Their Effect on Weather

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  • 0:05 What Are Weather Fronts?
  • 2:19 How Fronts Affect Weather
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

In this video lesson you will learn about how air masses with different characteristics create weather fronts. You will also identify the different types of fronts, as well as what type of weather occurs along them.

What Are Weather Fronts?

A long time ago, armies didn't have guns, grenades or fighter jets. They fought on the ground, face to face. An army ready to fight would consist of lines of men, each line with a specific job. In general, the front line was a strong line of shielded soldiers forging ahead, protecting those behind it.

Weather fronts act just like the front line of an army. Fronts are contact zones between two different air masses, and you can think of the air masses as the advancing armies, just with different pressure, density, temperature and moisture. And just like there's conflict between the battling armies, air masses 'battle' along fronts, creating changes in weather conditions. There are four types of fronts, and the type of front we get depends on which type of air mass, or army, is advancing over the other.

A cold front is the contact boundary of an advancing cold air mass over a stationary warm air mass. Conversely, a warm front is the contact boundary of an advancing warm air mass over a stationary cold air mass. This makes sense - the front is described by the type of air mass winning the 'fight.'

On a weather map, you'll see these symbols for a cold or warm front. The color helps you identify which type of front is moving in (blue for cold, red for warm), and the arrows tell you which direction the advancing air mass is coming from.

Warm and Cold Fronts
Fronts Weather

A stationary front is just what it sounds like: When neither air mass is advancing over the other. They are both stationary, and so is the front - the armies are at a stalemate. Finally, an occluded front is when a cold front overtakes a warm front. This happens because cold fronts move faster than warm fronts, so it's like one army is sneaking up from behind and taking over in a surprise attack.

On a weather map, you will see these symbols for a stationary or occluded front. As you can see with the stationary front, neither air mass is advancing. With an occluded front, the cold air mass is advancing over the warm air mass from behind.

Stationary and Occluded Weather Fronts
Weather Fronts Stationary Occluded

How Fronts Affect Weather

Just because they didn't have machine guns or grenades doesn't mean that battles weren't bloody. When two opposing armies fight, things can get very violent and dangerous because each side believes very strongly in what they're fighting for.

Weather fronts do the same thing - they advance forward, creating weather changes and sometimes even violent storms along the front. This is like the front line of battle on both sides - the initial point of battle contact.

Thunderstorms are common along cold fronts. This is because when a cold front occurs from a cold air mass moving into a warm air mass, the warm air is forced upward. When warm air rises, it cools, and since cool air can't hold as much moisture as warm air, the water in the air gets forced out, which is what creates clouds. Since the air is moving straight up, it forms a vertical cloud, which leads to thunderstorms along the front. However, behind the front, the skies are clear and the weather is calm.

Along warm fronts, storms are less intense and more drawn out. This is because the warm air moving in over the cold air rises gradually instead of quickly. Along the front, expect overcast skies and drizzle or light rain. Behind the front, the air will be warm and clouds will be pretty scattered.

Think about it like this: Thunderstorms generally develop quickly and are very dramatic storms. This comes from the quick, dramatic rise of the warm air when a cold air mass moves in. You know how it feels when you jump into a cold pool? It's a shocking feeling, and you're likely to jump right back out! When you step into a warm hot tub though, it's a little less dramatic, and your body reacts much more gradually. The same thing happens with a warm front, when the warm air slowly moves up over the cold air mass it's taking over.

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