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What is a Cold Front?: Formation, Characteristics, and Weather

Joseph Comunale, Amanda Robb
  • Author
    Joseph Comunale

    Joseph Comunale obtained a Bachelor's in Philosophy from UCF before becoming a high school science teacher for five years. He has taught Earth-Space Science and Integrated Science at a Title 1 School in Florida and has Professional Teacher's Certification for Earth-Space Science.

  • Instructor
    Amanda Robb

    Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

How does a cold front form? Learn the definition, see cold front characteristics, and see how it forms. Learn about cold front weather and its effects. Updated: 09/28/2021

What Is a Cold Front?

A cold front is a type of weather front involving a moving cold air mass. Cold fronts exist where a cold body of air is colliding with a warmer body of air. When this occurs, the cold air pushes the warm air up quickly and chaotically. If the warm air is moist, it can form cumulus clouds that produce rain showers and thunderstorms.

Cold Front vs. Warm Front

Both cold fronts and warm fronts are types of weather fronts formed out of moving air masses; however, both kinds of fronts involve cold and warm air masses. What differentiates cold fronts and warm fronts is which of the two air masses are moving. In a cold front, the cold air mass is moving into the warmer air mass. Whereas in a warm front, the warmer air mass is moving into the colder one. Each type of weather front creates different cloud formations. Cold fronts create tall cloud formations called cumulus clouds, while warm fronts create layered clouds, fog, or stratus-type clouds.

What is a cold front and how a cold front forms is illustrated in this image. The cold air mass outlined in blue moves into a warmer air mass. This results in cold front weather such as cumulus and cumulonimbus cloud formation.

Cold front weather is outlined in this image. Additionally, what is a cold front can be seen represented by the blue line.

There are also more specific weather fronts, such as a stationary front and an occluded front. During a stationary front, both the warm and cold air masses are moving toward each other at a slow rate so that the division between them is relatively stagnant. It becomes separated from the ground if a cold front overtakes a warm front.

What Is a Cold Front?

Have you ever heard a meteorologist on the news talking about a low pressure system moving into the area and creating gloomy, rainy weather? This kind of weather can be caused by a cold front. A cold front is a body of cold air that moves toward warmer air. Changes in air temperature can cause changes in weather.

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  • 0:45 Cold Front Collisions
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Cold Front Characteristics

Cold fronts again are one of the types of weather fronts. During a cold front, the colder air mass moves into the warmer air mass. This is typically represented on a weather map with a blue line with blue triangles pointing toward where the cold air mass is traveling.

Weather maps typically represent cold fronts with this symbol. The blue triangles point in the direction the cold front is moving.

Cold fronts are represented with this symbol.

Cold air is denser than warm air because molecules of heated gas have more kinetic motion and expand. When the cold air mass during a cold front moves into the warmer air mass, it results in a low-pressure system, where the warmer air is thrust upward because of its lower density. The cold air mass forms a rounded point as it spikes into the warmer air mass. The warmer air mass subsequently wraps above the colder.

How Does a Cold Front Form?

The formation of a cold front requires the construction of a cold air mass. Air masses can be polar or tropical, and continental or maritime. Cold fronts need the formation of polar air masses. However, a polar air mass can be continental or maritime and can vary in humidity. Air masses form as they become uniform in their moisture or temperature when they are stationary for a time above a given geographical region. An air mass is continental if it originates over land, while maritime air masses form over oceans. Continental air masses tend to be relatively dry but extremely cold or warm, depending on their geography. Maritime air masses tend to be very moist because they originate over oceans.

The formation of a cold front occurs through the following steps:

  • A maritime or continental air mass remains stationary over geographical regions associated with low temperatures.
  • While the air mass is stationary in a region, such as higher latitudes further away from the equator, it develops a uniform humidity and uniform cooler temperature than surrounding air - forming a polar air mass.
  • A polar air mass can then begin to migrate or move.
  • The polar air mass impacts a warmer or tropical air mass.
  • This forms a cold front and results in the less dense, warmer air thrusting upward above the cold air mass.

If a maritime or continental polar air mass forms and begins to move toward and into a warmer air mass, a cold front is formed.

Cold Front Weather

Cold fronts create certain kinds of weather patterns throughout their formation and process. Therefore, the weather during a cold front will vary as the cold front approaches, passes over, and continues over the area.

Characteristics

Cold fronts are bodies of air with cooler temperatures than the surrounding air, and they normally move from northwest to southeast. The temperature shift between cold and warm fronts can be drastic, from freezing temperatures near the cold front to warm temperatures close to the warm front. On a weather map, cold fronts are shown as curved blue lines with triangles pointing in the direction that the front is moving.

Cold Front Collisions

To think about the effects of cold air, we first need to understand how warm and cool air move, which is based on air density. When air is colder, the air molecules pack together more tightly, so the air becomes more dense and sinks. This is kind of like what happens when you feel cold. When people get cold, we shiver and pack together, trying to keep each other warm. Cool air does the same thing: it packs together and becomes more dense.

Warmer air has air molecules that are more spread out. Air molecules that are more spread out are less dense and will rise. Think again about the comparison to people. When people are hot, we want to get as far away from each other as possible. The people are like the warm air in this example, spreading out as they heat up. When a cold front meets up with warmer air, the cold air sinks, pushing the warm air into the atmosphere.

Cold Front Weather

The movement of warm air upward is called a low pressure system. To better understand how low pressure systems cause clouds and storms, we need to return to the idea of density. Warm air is less dense and the air molecules are spread apart. Because the air molecules are spread apart, there is more room for water vapor in the air. So, warm air contains more moisture. In cold air, the reverse is true: the air molecules are packed tightly together, so there isn't much room for water vapor.

If we go back to our people analogy, let's think of water vapor as tables in between the people. In the room full of warm people, there is more room for tables. But in the room with the cold people, everyone is so tightly packed together that there's no room for the tables.

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Video Transcript

What Is a Cold Front?

Have you ever heard a meteorologist on the news talking about a low pressure system moving into the area and creating gloomy, rainy weather? This kind of weather can be caused by a cold front. A cold front is a body of cold air that moves toward warmer air. Changes in air temperature can cause changes in weather.

Characteristics

Cold fronts are bodies of air with cooler temperatures than the surrounding air, and they normally move from northwest to southeast. The temperature shift between cold and warm fronts can be drastic, from freezing temperatures near the cold front to warm temperatures close to the warm front. On a weather map, cold fronts are shown as curved blue lines with triangles pointing in the direction that the front is moving.

Cold Front Collisions

To think about the effects of cold air, we first need to understand how warm and cool air move, which is based on air density. When air is colder, the air molecules pack together more tightly, so the air becomes more dense and sinks. This is kind of like what happens when you feel cold. When people get cold, we shiver and pack together, trying to keep each other warm. Cool air does the same thing: it packs together and becomes more dense.

Warmer air has air molecules that are more spread out. Air molecules that are more spread out are less dense and will rise. Think again about the comparison to people. When people are hot, we want to get as far away from each other as possible. The people are like the warm air in this example, spreading out as they heat up. When a cold front meets up with warmer air, the cold air sinks, pushing the warm air into the atmosphere.

Cold Front Weather

The movement of warm air upward is called a low pressure system. To better understand how low pressure systems cause clouds and storms, we need to return to the idea of density. Warm air is less dense and the air molecules are spread apart. Because the air molecules are spread apart, there is more room for water vapor in the air. So, warm air contains more moisture. In cold air, the reverse is true: the air molecules are packed tightly together, so there isn't much room for water vapor.

If we go back to our people analogy, let's think of water vapor as tables in between the people. In the room full of warm people, there is more room for tables. But in the room with the cold people, everyone is so tightly packed together that there's no room for the tables.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What happens during a cold front?

During a cold front, a cold air mass collides with a warmer air mass. When this happens, the warmer air is less dense and therefore is thrust upward along the front. As the warm air rises, the moisture begins to condense and form clouds and precipitation. Cumulous and cumulonimbus clouds are common occurrences at cold fronts. Cumulonimbus clouds can create thunderstorms and intense precipitation. Additionally, if the conditions are right and severe, a tornado can form out of the warm air, quickly thrust upward and falling back down in a swirling pattern.

What is a cold front and warm front?

Both cold and warm fronts are types of weather fronts involving moving air masses. Air masses are regions of air that have become relatively uniform in temperature and humidity by remaining stationary over a region for a time. If a cold air mass begins moving into a warmer air mass, it forms a cold front. If the warmer air mass is moving into the colder air mass, it creates a warm front.

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