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Weather Fronts

Colliding air masses create fronts, such as cold fronts, warm fronts, occluded fronts, and stationary fronts.

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Weather Fronts

How is a meteorological front like a military front?

In military usage, a front is where two opposing forces meet. This bayonet charge of French soldiers is opposing the Germans along the Western Front during World War I. How does a weather front resemble this?


Two air masses meet at a front. At a front, the two air masses have different densities and do not easily mix. One air mass is lifted above the other, creating a low pressure zone. If the lifted air is moist, there will be condensation and precipitation. Winds are common at a front. The greater the temperature difference between the two air masses, the stronger the winds will be. Fronts are the main cause of stormy weather.

There are four types of fronts, three moving and one stationary. With cold fronts and warm fronts, the air mass at the leading edge of the front gives the front its name. In other words, a cold front is right at the leading edge of moving cold air and a warm front marks the leading edge of moving warm air.

Stationary Front

At a stationary front the air masses do not move (Figure below). A front may become stationary if an air mass is stopped by a barrier, such as a mountain range. A stationary front may bring days of rain, drizzle, and fog. Winds usually blow parallel to the front, but in opposite directions. After several days, the front will likely break apart.

Symbol for a stationary front

The map symbol for a stationary front has red domes for the warm air mass and blue triangles for the cold air mass.

Cold Fronts

When a cold air mass takes the place of a warm air mass, there is a cold front (Figure below).

Diagram of a cold front

The cold air mass is dense, so it slides beneath the warm air mass and pushes it up.

Imagine that you are standing in one spot as a cold front approaches. Along the cold front, the denser, cold air pushes up the warm air, causing the air pressure to decrease (Figure above). If the humidity is high enough, some types of cumulus clouds will grow. High in the atmosphere, winds blow ice crystals from the tops of these clouds to create cirrostratus and cirrus clouds. At the front, there will be a line of rain showers, snow showers, or thunderstorms with blustery winds (Figure below). A squall line is a line of severe thunderstorms that forms along a cold front. Behind the front is the cold air mass. This mass is drier, so precipitation stops. The weather may be cold and clear or only partly cloudy. Winds may continue to blow into the low pressure zone at the front.

Picture of a squall line

A squall line.

The weather at a cold front varies with the season.

  • Spring and summer: the air is unstable so thunderstorms or tornadoes may form.
  • Spring: if the temperature gradient is high, strong winds blow.
  • Autumn: strong rains fall over a large area.
  • Winter: the cold air mass is likely to have formed in the frigid arctic, so there are frigid temperatures and heavy snows.

Warm Fronts

At a warm front, a warm air mass slides over a cold air mass (Figure below). When warm, less dense air moves over the colder, denser air, the atmosphere is relatively stable.

Diagram of a warm front

Warm air moves forward to take over the position of colder air.

Imagine that you are on the ground in the wintertime under a cold winter air mass with a warm front approaching. The transition from cold air to warm air takes place over a long distance, so the first signs of changing weather appear long before the front is actually over you. Initially, the air is cold: the cold air mass is above you and the warm air mass is above it. High cirrus clouds mark the transition from one air mass to the other.

Over time, cirrus clouds become thicker and cirrostratus clouds form. As the front approaches, altocumulus and altostratus clouds appear and the sky turns gray. Since it is winter, snowflakes fall. The clouds thicken and nimbostratus clouds form. Snowfall increases. Winds grow stronger as the low pressure approaches. As the front gets closer, the cold air mass is just above you but the warm air mass is not too far above that. The weather worsens. As the warm air mass approaches, temperatures rise and snow turns to sleet and freezing rain. Warm and cold air mix at the front, leading to the formation of stratus clouds and fog (Figure below).

Cumulus cloud build at a warm front

Cumulus clouds build at a warm front.

Occluded Front

An occluded front usually forms around a low pressure system (Figure below). The occlusion starts when a cold front catches up to a warm front. The air masses, in order from front to back, are cold, warm, and then cold again.

Symbol for an occluded front

The map symbol for an occluded front is mixed cold front triangles and warm front domes.

Coriolis effect curves the boundary where the two fronts meet towards the pole. If the air mass that arrives third is colder than either of the first two air masses, that air mass slip beneath them both. This is called a cold occlusion. If the air mass that arrives third is warm, that air mass rides over the other air mass. This is called a warm occlusion (Figure below).

Diagram of an occluded front

An occluded front with the air masses from front to rear in order as cold, warm, cold.

The weather at an occluded front is especially fierce right at the occlusion. Precipitation and shifting winds are typical. The Pacific Coast has frequent occluded fronts.


  • Much of the weather occurs where at fronts where air masses meet.
  • In a warm front a warm air mass slides over a cold air mass. In a cold front a cold air mass slides under a warm air mass.
  • An occluded front has three air masses, cold, warm, and cold.


  1. What characteristics give warm fronts and cold fronts their names?
  2. How does Coriolis effect create an occluded front?
  3. Describe the cloud sequence that goes along with a warm front.

Explore More

Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What are fronts?
  2. What happens when a maritime tropical air mass moves of the ocean toward a continental polar air mass and why?
  3. What is a warm front? Why is it called a warm front?
  4. How does a cold front get its name?
  5. What happens in a cold front? What type of weather does it produce and why?
  6. What happens in a stationary front?
  7. When does an occluded front form? What type of weather happens?

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cold front A front in which a cold air mass pushes a warm air mass upward.
front The meeting place of two air masses with different characteristics.
occluded front A front in which a cold front overtakes a warm front.
squall line A line of thunderstorms that forms at the edge of a cold front.
stationary front A stalled front in which the air does not move.
warm front A front in which a warm air mass replaces a cold air mass.

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