As an air mass moves across bodies of water and land, it eventually comes in contact with another air mass with different characteristics. The boundary layer between two types of air masses is known as a front. An approaching front of any type always means changes to the weather are imminent.
There are four types of fronts that are named according to the temperature of the advancing air relative to the temperature of the air it is replacing: [Figure 12-24]
Any discussion of frontal systems must be tempered with the knowledge that no two fronts are the same. However, generalized weather conditions are associated with a specific type of front that helps identify the front.
A warm front occurs when a warm mass of air advances and replaces a body of colder air. Warm fronts move slowly, typically 10 to 25 miles per hour (mph). The slope of the advancing front slides over the top of the cooler air and gradually pushes it out of the area. Warm fronts contain warm air that often has very high humidity. As the warm air is lifted, the temperature drops and condensation occurs.
Generally, prior to the passage of a warm front, cirriform or stratiform clouds, along with fog, can be expected to form along the frontal boundary. In the summer months, cumulonimbus clouds (thunderstorms) are likely to develop.
Light to moderate precipitation is probable, usually in the form of rain, sleet, snow, or drizzle, accentuated by poor visibility. The wind blows from the south-southeast, and the outside temperature is cool or cold with an increasing dew point. Finally, as the warm front approaches, the barometric pressure continues to fall until the front passes completely.
During the passage of a warm front, stratiform clouds are visible and drizzle may be falling. The visibility is generally poor, but improves with variable winds. The temperature rises steadily from the inflow of relatively warmer air. For the most part, the dew point remains steady and the pressure levels off. After the passage of a warm front, stratocumulus clouds predominate and rain showers are possible. The visibility eventually improves, but hazy conditions may exist for a short period after passage. The wind blows from the southsouthwest. With warming temperatures, the dew point rises and then levels off. There is generally a slight rise in barometric pressure, followed by a decrease of barometric pressure.
Flight Toward an Approaching Warm Front
By studying a typical warm front, much can be learned about the general patterns and atmospheric conditions that exist when a warm front is encountered in flight. Figure 12-25 depicts a warm front advancing eastward from St. Louis, Missouri, toward Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during a flight from Pittsburgh to St. Louis.At the time of departure from Pittsburgh, the weather is good VFR with a scattered layer of cirrus clouds at 15,000 feet. As the flight progresses westward to Columbus and closer to the oncoming warm front, the clouds deepen and become increasingly stratiform in appearance with a ceiling of 6,000 feet. The visibility decreases to six miles in haze with a falling barometric pressure. Approaching Indianapolis, the weather deteriorates to broken clouds at 2,000 feet with three miles visibility and rain. With the temperature and dew point the same, fog is likely to develop. At St. Louis, the sky is overcast with low clouds and drizzle and the visibility is one mile. Beyond Indianapolis, the ceiling and visibility are too low to continue VFR. Therefore, it would be wise to remain in Indianapolis until the warm front passes, which may take up to two days.
A cold front occurs when a mass of cold, dense, and stable air advances and replaces a body of warmer air.
Cold fronts move more rapidly than warm fronts, progressing at a rate of 25 to 30 mph. However, extreme cold fronts have been recorded moving at speeds of up to 60 mph. A typical cold front moves in a manner opposite that of a warm front. It is so dense, it stays close to the ground and acts like a snowplow, sliding under the warmer air and forcing the less dense air aloft. The rapidly ascending air causes the temperature to decrease suddenly, forcing the creation of clouds. The type of clouds that form depends on the stability of the warmer air mass. A cold front in the Northern Hemisphere is normally oriented in a northeast to southwest manner and can be several hundred miles long, encompassing a large area of land.
Prior to the passage of a typical cold front, cirriform or towering cumulus clouds are present, and cumulonimbus clouds may develop. Rain showers may also develop due to the rapid development of clouds. A high dew point and falling barometric pressure are indicative of imminent cold front passage.
As the cold front passes, towering cumulus or cumulonimbus clouds continue to dominate the sky. Depending on the intensity of the cold front, heavy rain showers form and may be accompanied by lightning, thunder, and/or hail. More severe cold fronts can also produce tornadoes. During cold front passage, the visibility is poor with winds variable and gusty, and the temperature and dew point drop rapidly. A quickly falling barometric pressure bottoms out during frontal passage, then begins a gradual increase.
After frontal passage, the towering cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds begin to dissipate to cumulus clouds with a corresponding decrease in the precipitation. Good visibility eventually prevails with the winds from the west-northwest. Temperatures remain cooler and the barometric pressure continues to rise.
Fast-Moving Cold Front
Fast-moving cold fronts are pushed by intense pressure systems far behind the actual front. The friction between the ground and the cold front retards the movement of the front and creates a steeper frontal surface. This results in a very narrow band of weather, concentrated along the leading edge of the front. If the warm air being overtaken by the cold front is relatively stable, overcast skies and rain may occur for some distance behind the front. If the warm air is unstable, scattered thunderstorms and rain showers may form. A continuous line of thunderstorms, or squall line, may form along or ahead of the front. Squall lines present a serious hazard to pilots as squall-type thunderstorms are intense and move quickly. Behind a fast-moving cold front, the skies usually clear rapidly, and the front leaves behind gusty, turbulent winds and colder temperatures.
Flight Toward an Approaching Cold Front
Like warm fronts, not all cold fronts are the same. Examining a flight toward an approaching cold front, pilots can get a better understanding of the type of conditions that can be encountered in flight. Figure 12-26 depicts a flight from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, toward St. Louis, Missouri.At the time of departure from Pittsburgh, the weather is VFR with three miles visibility in smoke and a scattered layer of clouds at 3,500 feet. As the flight progresses westward to Columbus and closer to the oncoming cold front, the clouds show signs of vertical development with a broken layer at 2,500 feet. The visibility is six miles in haze with a falling barometric pressure. Approaching Indianapolis, the weather has deteriorated to overcast clouds at 1,000 feet and three miles visibility with thunderstorms and heavy rain showers. At St. Louis, the weather gets better with scattered clouds at 1,000 feet and a ten mile visibility.
A pilot using sound judgment based on the knowledge of frontal conditions will likely remain in Indianapolis until the front has passed. Trying to fly below a line of thunderstorms or a squall line is hazardous, and flight over the top of or around the storm is not an option. Thunderstorms can extend up to well over the capability of small airplanes and can extend in a line for 300 to 500 miles.