Cold front

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The symbol of a cold front: a blue line with triangles pointing in the direction of travel Cold front symbol.svg
The symbol of a cold front: a blue line with triangles pointing in the direction of travel
A retreating cold front with clear air behind Retreating cold front.jpg
A retreating cold front with clear air behind
A cold front over the eastern and central region of the United States of America Cold Front.jpg
A cold front over the eastern and central region of the United States of America

A cold front is the leading edge of a cooler mass of air, replacing at ground level a warmer mass of air, which lies within a fairly sharp surface trough of low pressure. It forms in the wake of an extratropical cyclone, at the leading edge of its cold air advection pattern, which is also known as the cyclone's dry conveyor belt circulation. Temperature differences across the boundary can exceed 30 °C (54 °F) from one side to the other. [1] When enough moisture is present, rain can occur along the boundary. If there is significant instability along the boundary, a narrow line of thunderstorms can form along the frontal zone. If instability is less, a broad shield of rain can move in behind the front, which increases the temperature difference across the boundary. Cold fronts are stronger in the fall and spring transition seasons and weakest during the summer.

Trough (meteorology) elongated region of low atmospheric pressure

A trough is an elongated (extended) region of relatively low atmospheric pressure, often associated with fronts. Troughs may be at the surface, or aloft, or both under various conditions. Most troughs bring clouds, showers, and a wind shift, particularly following the passage of the trough. This results from convergence or "squeezing" which forces lifting of moist air behind the trough line.

Low-pressure area region where the atmospheric pressure is lower than that of surrounding locations

A low-pressure area, low, depression or cyclone is a region on the topographic map where the atmospheric pressure is lower than that of surrounding locations. Low-pressure systems form under areas of wind divergence that occur in the upper levels of the troposphere. The formation process of a low-pressure area is known as cyclogenesis. Within the field of meteorology, atmospheric divergence aloft occurs in two areas. The first area is on the east side of upper troughs, which form half of a Rossby wave within the Westerlies. A second area of wind divergence aloft occurs ahead of embedded shortwave troughs, which are of smaller wavelength. Diverging winds aloft ahead of these troughs cause atmospheric lift within the troposphere below, which lowers surface pressures as upward motion partially counteracts the force of gravity.

Extratropical cyclone type of cyclone

Extratropical cyclones, sometimes called mid-latitude cyclones or wave cyclones, are low-pressure areas which, along with the anticyclones of high-pressure areas, drive the weather over much of the Earth. Extratropical cyclones are capable of producing anything from cloudiness and mild showers to heavy gales, thunderstorms, blizzards, and tornadoes. These types of cyclones are defined as large scale (synoptic) low pressure weather systems that occur in the middle latitudes of the Earth. In contrast with tropical cyclones, extratropical cyclones produce rapid changes in temperature and dew point along broad lines, called weather fronts, about the center of the cyclone.


Development of cold fronts

The cooler and denser air wedges under the less-dense warmer air, lifting it. This upward motion causes lowered pressure along the cold front and can cause the formation of a narrow line of showers and thunderstorms when enough moisture is present. On weather maps, the surface position of the cold front is marked with the symbol of a blue line of triangles/spikes (pips) pointing in the direction of travel. A cold front's location is at the leading edge of the temperature drop off, which in an isotherm analysis would show up as the leading edge of the isotherm gradient, and it normally lies within a sharp surface trough. [2] Cold fronts move faster than warm fronts and can produce sharper changes in weather. Since cold air is denser than warm air, it rapidly replaces the warm air preceding the boundary. [3]

Pressure Force distributed continuously over an area

Pressure is the force applied perpendicular to the surface of an object per unit area over which that force is distributed. Gauge pressure is the pressure relative to the ambient pressure.

Shower place in which a person bathes under a spray of water

A shower is a place in which a person bathes under a spray of typically warm or hot water. Indoors, there is a drain in the floor. Most showers have temperature, spray pressure and adjustable showerhead nozzle. The simplest showers have a swivelling nozzle aiming down on the user, while more complex showers have a showerhead connected to a hose that has a mounting bracket. This allows the showerer to hold the showerhead by hand to spray the water at different parts of their body. A shower can be installed in a small shower stall or bathtub with a plastic shower curtain or door. Showering is common in Western culture due to the efficiency of using it compared with a bathtub. Its use in hygiene is, therefore, common practice. A shower uses less water on average than a bath: 80 litres for a shower compared with 150 litres for a bath.

Thunderstorm type of weather

A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is a storm characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere, known as thunder. Relatively weak thunderstorms are sometimes called thundershowers. Thunderstorms occur in a type of cloud known as a cumulonimbus. They are usually accompanied by strong winds, and often produce heavy rain and sometimes snow, sleet, or hail, but some thunderstorms produce little precipitation or no precipitation at all. Thunderstorms may line up in a series or become a rainband, known as a squall line. Strong or severe thunderstorms include some of the most dangerous weather phenomena, including large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Some of the most persistent severe thunderstorms, known as supercells, rotate as do cyclones. While most thunderstorms move with the mean wind flow through the layer of the troposphere that they occupy, vertical wind shear sometimes causes a deviation in their course at a right angle to the wind shear direction.

In the northern hemisphere, a cold front usually causes a shift of wind from southwest to northwest clockwise, also known as veering, and in the southern hemisphere a shift from northwest to southwest (counterclockwise, backing). Normally, cold fronts can be marked by these characteristics:

Weather phenomenonPrior to the passing of the front While the front is passingAfter the passing of the front
TemperatureWarmCooling suddenlySteadily cooling
Atmospheric pressure Decreasing steadilyLowest, then sudden increaseIncreasing steadily
  • Southwest to southeast (northern hemisphere)
  • Northwest to northeast (southern hemisphere)
Gusty; shifting
  • North to west, usually northwest (northern hemisphere)
  • South to west, usually southwest (southern hemisphere)
Precipitation/conditions*Light patchy rain can be produced by stratocumulus or stratus in the warm sector. In summer, sometimes thunderstorms if a preceding squall line is present. In winter snow squalls or showers may occur. [4] Prolonged rain (nimbostratus) or thunderstorms (cumulonimbus): depends on conditions.Showers, then clearing
Clouds*Often preceded by cirrus, cirrostratus then altostratus like a warm front (but usually with smaller amounts of these clouds). Areas of cirrocumulus and altocumulus within cirrostratus and altostratus more commonly seen than at a warm front. Larger cumulus clouds under the higher cloud types than at a warm front, where stratocumulus and cumulus humilis usually occur. Some of these cumulus clouds may produce showers ahead of the front.Cumulonimbus and cumulus congestus producing frequent showers, with a sheet of upper altostratus, through which the sun can sometimes be seen. Less commonly nimbostratus occurs with continuous rain.Patchy altocumulus or stratocumulus and higher cirrus clouds along with fast moving stratus fractus then eventually scattered cumulus and sometimes cumulonimbus.
Visibility*Fair to poor in haze Poor, but improvingGood, except in showers
Dew PointHigh, steadySudden dropFalling

*provided there is sufficient moisture.


If the cold front is highly unstable, cumulonimbus clouds producing thunderstorms commonly form along the front. Anvil cirrus clouds may spread a considerable distance downwind from the thunderstorms. [5] The other cloud types associated with a cold front depend on atmospheric conditions such as air mass stability and wind shear. [6] As the front approaches, middle-étage gives way to altostratus and low-level stratocumulus with intermittent light precipitation if the warm airmass being displaced by the cold front is mostly stable. With significant airmass instability, vertically developed cumulus or cumulonimbus with showers and thunderstorms will form along the front.

Cumulonimbus cloud genus of clouds, dense towering vertical cloud associated with thunderstorms and atmospheric instability

Cumulonimbus is a dense, towering vertical cloud, forming from water vapor carried by powerful upward air currents. If observed during a storm, these clouds may be referred to as thunderheads. Cumulonimbus can form alone, in clusters, or along cold front squall lines. These clouds are capable of producing lightning and other dangerous severe weather, such as tornadoes. Cumulonimbus progress from overdeveloped cumulus congestus clouds and may further develop as part of a supercell. Cumulonimbus is abbreviated Cb.

Cumulonimbus incus variety of cloud

A cumulonimbus incus also known as an anvil cloud is a cumulonimbus cloud which has reached the level of stratospheric stability and has formed the characteristic flat, anvil-top shape. It signifies the thunderstorm in its mature stage, succeeding the cumulonimbus calvus stage. Cumulonimbus incus is a sub-form of Cumulonimbus capillatus.

Cirrus cloud genus of atmospheric cloud

Cirrus is a genus of atmospheric cloud generally characterized by thin, wispy strands, giving the type its name from the Latin word cirrus, meaning a ringlet or curling lock of hair. This cloud can form at any altitude between 16,500 ft and 45,000 ft above sea level. The strands of cloud sometimes appear in tufts of a distinctive form referred to by the common name of "mares' tails".

After the passage of the cold front, the sky usually clears as high pressure builds in behind the system, although significant amounts of cumulus or stratocumulus, often in the form of long bands called cloud streets may persist if the air mass behind the front remains humid. [7] Small and unchanging amounts of cumulus or cirrus clouds in an otherwise clear sky are usually indications of continuing fair weather as long as the barometric pressure remains comparatively high.


A cold front as it appeared on the National Weather Service Wichita, Kansas WSR-88D on April 3, 2011. The thin blue line labeled "cold front" is the front, with severe thunderstorms seen developing behind the front, which is moving towards the bottom right. Radar image of severe thunderstorms and cold front over Marion County, Kansas.png
A cold front as it appeared on the National Weather Service Wichita, Kansas WSR-88D on April 3, 2011. The thin blue line labeled "cold front" is the front, with severe thunderstorms seen developing behind the front, which is moving towards the bottom right.

A cold front commonly brings a narrow band of precipitation that follows along the leading edge of the cold front. These bands of precipitation are often very strong, [8] and can bring severe thunderstorms, hailstorms, [9] snow squalls, [4] and/or tornadoes. In the spring, these cold fronts can be very strong, and can bring strong winds when the pressure gradient is higher than normal. During the winter months, cold fronts sometimes come through an area with little or no precipitation. Wider rain bands can occur behind cold fronts which tend to have more stratiform, and less convective, precipitation. [10] These rainstorms sometimes bring flooding, and can move very slowly when the storm steering it is strong and embedded within a meridional flow pattern (with more pole to equator motion rather than west to east motion). In the winter, cold fronts can bring cold spells, and occasionally snow. In the spring or summer in temperate latitudes, hail may occasionally fall along with the rain. If moisture is not sufficient, such as when a system has previously moved across a mountain barrier, cold fronts can pass without cloudiness.

Hail precipitation

Hail is a form of solid precipitation. It is distinct from ice pellets, though the two are often confused. It consists of balls or irregular lumps of ice, each of which is called a hailstone. Ice pellets fall generally in cold weather while hail growth is greatly inhibited during cold surface temperatures.

Tornado violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the earths surface and a cumulonimbus cloud in the air

A tornado is a rapidly rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the Earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. The windstorm is often referred to as a twister, whirlwind or cyclone, although the word cyclone is used in meteorology to name a weather system with a low-pressure area in the center around which winds blow counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern. Tornadoes come in many shapes and sizes, and they are often visible in the form of a condensation funnel originating from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud, with a cloud of rotating debris and dust beneath it. Most tornadoes have wind speeds less than 110 miles per hour (180 km/h), are about 250 feet (80 m) across, and travel a few miles before dissipating. The most extreme tornadoes can attain wind speeds of more than 300 miles per hour (480 km/h), are more than two miles (3 km) in diameter, and stay on the ground for dozens of miles.

In atmospheric science, the pressure gradient is a physical quantity that describes in which direction and at what rate the pressure increases the most rapidly around a particular location. The pressure gradient is a dimensional quantity expressed in units of Pa/m

Frontogenetical circulation

Frontogenesis is the process of creating or steepening the temperature gradient of a front. During this process the atmosphere reacts in an attempt to restore balance, the consequence is a circular motion along the front where air is being lifted up, along the cold front and dropping downward, behind the frontal boundary. This is the actual force of upward motion along a front that is responsible for clouds and precipitation.

Frontogenesis is a meteorological process of tightening of horizontal temperature gradients to produce fronts. In the end, two types of fronts form: cold fronts and warm fronts. A cold front is a narrow line where temperature decreases rapidly. A warm front is a narrow line of warmer temperatures and essentially where much of the precipitation occurs. Frontogenesis occurs as a result of a developing baroclinic wave. According to Hoskins & Bretherton, there are eight mechanisms that influence temperature gradients: horizontal deformation, horizontal shearing, vertical deformation, differential vertical motion, latent heat release, surface friction, turbulence and mixing, and radiation. Semigeostrophic frontogenesis theory focuses on the role of horizontal deformation and shear.

As the temperature gradient steepens during frontogenesis, the thermal wind becomes imbalanced. To maintain balance, the geostrophic wind aloft and below adjust, such that regions of divergence/convergence form. Mass continuity would require a vertical transport of air along the cold front where there is divergence (lowered pressure). Although this circulation is described by a series of processes, they are actually occurring at the same time, observable along the front as a thermally direct circulation. There are several factors that influence the final shape and tilt of the circulation around the front, ultimately determining the kind and location of clouds and precipitation. [6] [11]

Temperature changes

Cold fronts are the leading edge of cooler air masses, hence the name "cold front". They have stronger temperature changes during the fall (autumn) and spring and during the middle of winter. Temperature changes associated with cold fronts can be as much as 50 °F (30 °C). When cold fronts come through, there is usually a quick, yet strong gust of wind, that shows that the cold front is passing. In surface weather observations, a remark known as FROPA is coded when this occurs. [12] The effects from a cold front can last from hours to days. The air behind the front is cooler than the air it is replacing and the warm air is forced to rise, so it cools. As the cooler air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air, clouds form and rain occurs.

Characteristics of boundaries around an extratropical cyclone

Occluded cyclone example. The triple point is the intersection of the cold, warm, and occluded fronts. Occluded cyclone.svg
Occluded cyclone example. The triple point is the intersection of the cold, warm, and occluded fronts.

Cold fronts form when a cooler air mass moves into an area of warmer air in the wake of a developing extratropical cyclone. The warmer air interacts with the cooler air mass along the boundary, and usually produces precipitation. Cold fronts often follow a warm front or squall line. Very commonly, cold fronts have a warm front ahead but with a perpendicular orientation. In areas where cold fronts catch up to the warm front, the occluded front develops. Occluded fronts have an area of warm air aloft. When such a feature forms poleward of an extratropical cyclone, it is known as a trowal , which is short for TRough Of Warm Air aLoft. [13] A cold front is considered a warm front if it begins to retreat ahead of the next extratropical cyclone along the frontal boundary, and called a stationary front if it stalls.

See also

Related Research Articles

Cyclone large scale air mass that rotates around a strong center of low pressure

In meteorology, a cyclone is a large scale air mass that rotates around a strong center of low atmospheric pressure. Cyclones are characterized by inward spiraling winds that rotate about a zone of low pressure. The largest low-pressure systems are polar vortices and extratropical cyclones of the largest scale. Warm-core cyclones such as tropical cyclones and subtropical cyclones also lie within the synoptic scale. Mesocyclones, tornadoes and dust devils lie within smaller mesoscale. Upper level cyclones can exist without the presence of a surface low, and can pinch off from the base of the tropical upper tropospheric trough during the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere. Cyclones have also been seen on extraterrestrial planets, such as Mars and Neptune. Cyclogenesis is the process of cyclone formation and intensification. Extratropical cyclones begin as waves in large regions of enhanced mid-latitude temperature contrasts called baroclinic zones. These zones contract and form weather fronts as the cyclonic circulation closes and intensifies. Later in their life cycle, extratropical cyclones occlude as cold air masses undercut the warmer air and become cold core systems. A cyclone's track is guided over the course of its 2 to 6 day life cycle by the steering flow of the subtropical jet stream.

Surface weather analysis

Surface weather analysis is a special type of weather map that provides a view of weather elements over a geographical area at a specified time based on information from ground-based weather stations.

Air mass a volume of air defined by its temperature and water vapor content

In meteorology, an air mass is a volume of air defined by its temperature and water vapor content. Air masses cover many hundreds or thousands of miles, and adapt to the characteristics of the surface below them. They are classified according to latitude and their continental or maritime source regions. Colder air masses are termed polar or arctic, while warmer air masses are deemed tropical. Continental and superior air masses are dry while maritime and monsoon air masses are moist. Weather fronts separate air masses with different density characteristics. Once an air mass moves away from its source region, underlying vegetation and water bodies can quickly modify its character. Classification schemes tackle an air mass' characteristics, as well as modification.

Squall line

A squall line or quasi-linear convective system (QLCS) is a line of thunderstorms forming along or ahead of a cold front. In the early 20th century, the term was used as a synonym for cold front. It contains heavy precipitation, hail, frequent lightning, strong straight-line winds, and possibly tornadoes and waterspouts. Strong straight-line winds can occur where the squall line is in the shape of a bow echo. Tornadoes can occur along waves within a line echo wave pattern (LEWP), where mesoscale low-pressure areas are present. Some bow echoes which develop within the summer season are known as derechos, and they move quite fast through large sections of territory. On the back edge of the rainband associated with mature squall lines, a wake low can be present, sometimes associated with a heat burst.

The synoptic scale in meteorology is a horizontal length scale of the order of 1000 kilometers or more. This corresponds to a horizontal scale typical of mid-latitude depressions. Most high and low-pressure areas seen on weather maps such as surface weather analyses are synoptic-scale systems, driven by the location of Rossby waves in their respective hemisphere. Low-pressure areas and their related frontal zones occur on the leading edge of a trough within the Rossby wave pattern, while high-pressure areas form on the back edge of the trough. Most precipitation areas occur near frontal zones. The word synoptic is derived from the Greek word συνοπτικός, meaning seen together.

Warm front

A warm front is a density discontinuity located at the leading edge of a homogeneous warm air mass, and is typically located on the equator-facing edge of an isotherm gradient. Warm fronts lie within broader troughs of low pressure than cold fronts, and move more slowly than the cold fronts which usually follow because cold air is denser and less easy to remove from the Earth's surface. This also forces temperature differences across warm fronts to be broader in scale. Clouds ahead of the warm front are mostly stratiform, and rainfall gradually increases as the front approaches. Fog can also occur preceding a warm frontal passage. Clearing and warming is usually rapid after frontal passage. If the warm air mass is unstable, thunderstorms may be embedded among the stratiform clouds ahead of the front, and after frontal passage thundershowers may continue. On weather maps, the surface location of a warm front is marked with a red line of semicircles pointing in the direction of travel.


Thundersnow, also known as a winter thunderstorm or a thundersnowstorm, is an unusual kind of thunderstorm with snow falling as the primary precipitation instead of rain. It typically falls in regions of strong upward motion within the cold sector of an extratropical cyclone. Thermodynamically, it is not different from any other type of thunderstorm, but the top of the cumulonimbus cloud is usually quite low. In addition to snow, graupel or hail may fall.

Cyclogenesis is the development or strengthening of cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere. Cyclogenesis is an umbrella term for at least three different processes, all of which result in the development of some sort of cyclone, and at any size from the microscale to the synoptic scale.

Outflow boundary

An outflow boundary, also known as a gust front, is a storm-scale or mesoscale boundary separating thunderstorm-cooled air (outflow) from the surrounding air; similar in effect to a cold front, with passage marked by a wind shift and usually a drop in temperature and a related pressure jump. Outflow boundaries can persist for 24 hours or more after the thunderstorms that generated them dissipate, and can travel hundreds of kilometers from their area of origin. New thunderstorms often develop along outflow boundaries, especially near the point of intersection with another boundary. Outflow boundaries can be seen either as fine lines on weather radar imagery or else as arcs of low clouds on weather satellite imagery. From the ground, outflow boundaries can be co-located with the appearance of roll clouds and shelf clouds.

Weather front boundary separating two masses of air of different densities

A weather front is a boundary separating two masses of air of different densities, and is the principal cause of meteorological phenomena outside the tropics. In surface weather analyses, fronts are depicted using various colored triangles and half-circles, depending on the type of front. The air masses separated by a front usually differ in temperature and humidity.


A rainband is a cloud and precipitation structure associated with an area of rainfall which is significantly elongated. Rainbands can be stratiform or convective, and are generated by differences in temperature. When noted on weather radar imagery, this precipitation elongation is referred to as banded structure. Rainbands within tropical cyclones are curved in orientation. Tropical cyclone rainbands contain showers and thunderstorms that, together with the eyewall and the eye, constitute a hurricane or tropical storm. The extent of rainbands around a tropical cyclone can help determine the cyclone's intensity.

Mesoscale convective system complex of thunderstorms organized on a larger scale

A mesoscale convective system (MCS) is a complex of thunderstorms that becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms but smaller than extratropical cyclones, and normally persists for several hours or more. A mesoscale convective system's overall cloud and precipitation pattern may be round or linear in shape, and include weather systems such as tropical cyclones, squall lines, lake-effect snow events, polar lows, and Mesoscale Convective Complexes (MCCs), and generally form near weather fronts. The type that forms during the warm season over land has been noted across North America, Europe, and Asia, with a maximum in activity noted during the late afternoon and evening hours.

Precipitation types

In meteorology, the various types of precipitation often include the character or phase of the precipitation which is falling to ground level. There are three distinct ways that precipitation can occur. Convective precipitation is generally more intense, and of shorter duration, than stratiform precipitation. Orographic precipitation occurs when moist air is forced upwards over rising terrain, such as a mountain.

Air-mass thunderstorm

An air-mass thunderstorm, also called an "ordinary", "single cell", or "garden variety" thunderstorm, is a thunderstorm that is generally weak and usually not severe. These storms form in environments where at least some amount of Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) is present, but very low levels of wind shear and helicity. The lifting source, which is a crucial factor in thunderstorm development, is usually the result of uneven heating of the surface, though they can be induced by weather fronts and other low-level boundaries associated with wind convergence. The energy needed for these storms to form comes in the form of insolation, or solar radiation. Air-mass thunderstorms do not move quickly, last no longer than an hour, and have the threats of lightning, as well as showery light, moderate, or heavy rainfall. Heavy rainfall can interfere with microwave transmissions within the atmosphere.

Outflow (meteorology) air that flows outwards from a storm system

Outflow, in meteorology, is air that flows outwards from a storm system. It is associated with ridging, or anticyclonic flow. In the low levels of the troposphere, outflow radiates from thunderstorms in the form of a wedge of rain-cooled air, which is visible as a thin rope-like cloud on weather satellite imagery or a fine line on weather radar imagery. Low-level outflow boundaries can disrupt the center of small tropical cyclones. However, outflow aloft is essential for the strengthening of a tropical cyclone. If this outflow is undercut, the tropical cyclone weakens. If two tropical cyclones are in proximity, the upper level outflow from the system to the west can limit the development of the system to the east.

Outline of meteorology Overview of and topical guide to meteorology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to meteorology:

Inflow (meteorology) in meteorology, the flow of a fluid into a large collection of that fluid

Inflow is the flow of a fluid into a large collection of that fluid. Within meteorology, inflow normally refers to the influx of warmth and moisture from air within the Earth's atmosphere into storm systems. Extratropical cyclones are fed by inflow focused along their cold front and warm fronts. Tropical cyclones require a large inflow of warmth and moisture from warm oceans in order to develop significantly, mainly within the lowest 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) of the atmosphere. Once the flow of warm and moist air is cut off from thunderstorms and their associated tornadoes, normally by the thunderstorm's own rain-cooled outflow boundary, the storms begin to dissipate. Rear inflow jets behind squall lines act to erode the broad rain shield behind the squall line, and accelerate its forward motion.

Glossary of meteorology Wikimedia list article

This glossary of meteorology is a list of terms and concepts relevant to meteorology and the atmospheric sciences, their sub-disciplines, and related fields.


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