Air mass
Overview
 
In meteorology
Meteorology
Meteorology is the interdisciplinary scientific study of the atmosphere. Studies in the field stretch back millennia, though significant progress in meteorology did not occur until the 18th century. The 19th century saw breakthroughs occur after observing networks developed across several countries...

, an air mass is a volume of air defined by its temperature and water vapor content. Air masses cover many hundreds or thousands of square miles, and adopt 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.
Encyclopedia
In meteorology
Meteorology
Meteorology is the interdisciplinary scientific study of the atmosphere. Studies in the field stretch back millennia, though significant progress in meteorology did not occur until the 18th century. The 19th century saw breakthroughs occur after observing networks developed across several countries...

, an air mass is a volume of air defined by its temperature and water vapor content. Air masses cover many hundreds or thousands of square miles, and adopt 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 front
Weather front
A weather front is a boundary separating two masses of air of different densities, and is the principal cause of meteorological phenomena. In surface weather analyses, fronts are depicted using various colored lines and symbols, depending on the type of front...

s separate air masses with different density (temperature and/or moisture) 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, and well as modification...

Classification and notation

The Bergeron classification is the most widely accepted form of air mass classification, though others have produced more refined versions of this scheme over different regions of the globe. Air mass classification involves three letters. The first letter describes its moisture properties, with c used for continent
Continent
A continent is one of several very large landmasses on Earth. They are generally identified by convention rather than any strict criteria, with seven regions commonly regarded as continents—they are : Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia.Plate tectonics is...

al air masses (dry) and m for maritime air masses (moist). The second letter describes the thermal characteristic of its source region: T for Tropical
Tropics
The tropics is a region of the Earth surrounding the Equator. It is limited in latitude by the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere at approximately  N and the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere at  S; these latitudes correspond to the axial tilt of the Earth...

, P for Polar
Polar region
Earth's polar regions are the areas of the globe surrounding the poles also known as frigid zones. The North Pole and South Pole being the centers, these regions are dominated by the polar ice caps, resting respectively on the Arctic Ocean and the continent of Antarctica...

, A for arctic
Arctic
The Arctic is a region located at the northern-most part of the Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, Greenland, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The Arctic region consists of a vast, ice-covered ocean, surrounded by treeless permafrost...

 or Antarctic, M for monsoon, E for Equator
Equator
An equator is the intersection of a sphere's surface with the plane perpendicular to the sphere's axis of rotation and containing the sphere's center of mass....

ial, and S for superior air (dry air formed by significant downward motion in the atmosphere). The third letter is used to designate the stability of the atmosphere. If the air mass is colder than the ground below it, it is labeled k. If the air mass is warmer than the ground below it, it is labeled w.

Air masses of oceanic origin are denoted with a lower-case "m" ("maritime"), while air masses of continental origin are denoted with a lower-case "c" ("continental"). Air masses are also denoted as either Arctic (upper-case "A", or "AA" for Antarctic air masses), polar (upper-case "P"), tropical (upper-case "T"), or equatorial (upper-case "E"). These two sets of attributes are used in combinations depending on the air mass being described. For instance, an air mass originating over the desert southwest of the United States in summer may be designated "cT". An air mass originating over northern Siberia in winter may be indicated as "cA". An upper case "S" was occasionally used to denote something called a "superior" air mass. This was regarded as an adiabatically drying and warming air mass descending from aloft. In South Asia, an upper case "M" (for "monsoon") has been occasionally used to denote an air mass within the summer monsoon
Monsoon
Monsoon is traditionally defined as a seasonal reversing wind accompanied by corresponding changes in precipitation, but is now used to describe seasonal changes in atmospheric circulation and precipitation associated with the asymmetric heating of land and sea...

 regime in that region.

The stability of an air mass may be shown using a third letter, either "k" (air mass colder than the surface below it) or "w" (air mass warmer than the surface below it). An example of this might be a polar air mass blowing over the Gulf Stream
Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension towards Europe, the North Atlantic Drift, is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean...

, denoted as "cPk". Occasionally, one may also encounter the use of an apostrophe or "degree tick" denoting that a given air mass having the same notation as another it is replacing is colder than the replaced air mass (usually for polar air masses). For example, a series of fronts over the Pacific might show an air mass denoted mPk followed by another denoted mPk'.

Another convention utilizing these symbols is the indication of modification or transformation of one type to another. For instance, an Arctic air mass blowing out over the Gulf of Alaska may be shown as "cA-mPk". Yet another convention indicates the layering of air masses in certain situations. For instance, the overrunning of a polar air mass by an air mass from the Gulf of Mexico over the Central United States might be shown with the notation "mT/cP" (sometimes using a horizontal line as in fraction notation).

Characteristics

Arctic, Antarctic, and polar air masses are cold. The qualities of arctic air are developed over ice and snow-covered ground. Arctic air is deeply cold, colder than polar air masses. Arctic air can be shallow in the summer, and rapidly modify as it moves equatorward. Polar air masses develop over higher latitudes over the land or ocean, are very stable, and generally shallower than arctic air. Polar air over the ocean (maritime) loses its stability as it gains moisture over warmer ocean waters.

Tropical and equatorial air masses are hot as they develop over lower latitudes. Those that develop over land (continental) are drier and hotter than those that develop over oceans, and travel northward on the western periphery of the subtropical ridge
Subtropical ridge
The subtropical ridge is a significant belt of high pressure situated around the latitudes of 30°N in the Northern Hemisphere and 30°S in the Southern Hemisphere. It is characterized by mostly calm winds, which acts to reduce air quality under its axis by causing fog overnight, and haze during...

. Maritime tropical air masses are sometimes referred to as trade air masses. Monsoon air masses are moist and unstable. Superior air masses are dry, and rarely reach the ground. It normally resides over maritime tropical air masses, forming a warmer and drier layer over the more moderate moist air mass below, forming what is known as a trade wind
Trade wind
The trade winds are the prevailing pattern of easterly surface winds found in the tropics, within the lower portion of the Earth's atmosphere, in the lower section of the troposphere near the Earth's equator...

 inversion over the maritime tropical air mass. Continental Polar air masses (cP) are air masses that are cold and dry due to their continental source region. Continental polar air masses that affect North America form over interior Canada. A Continental Tropical Air Mass is a type of tropical air produced over subtropical arid regions; it is hot and very dry.

Movement and fronts

A weather front is a boundary separating two masses of air of different densities
Density
The mass density or density of a material is defined as its mass per unit volume. The symbol most often used for density is ρ . In some cases , density is also defined as its weight per unit volume; although, this quantity is more properly called specific weight...

, and is the principal cause of meteorological phenomena
Meteorological phenomenon
A meteorological phenomenon is a weather event that can be explained by the principles of meteorology. Such events include:* Air mass* Anticyclone* Arctic cyclone* Clouds* Crow Instability* Derecho* Diamond dust* Drought* Dust devil* Dust storm...

. In surface weather analyses
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...

, fronts are depicted using various colored lines and symbols, depending on the type of front. The air masses separated by a front usually differ in temperature
Temperature
Temperature is a physical property of matter that quantitatively expresses the common notions of hot and cold. Objects of low temperature are cold, while various degrees of higher temperatures are referred to as warm or hot...

 and humidity
Humidity
Humidity is a term for the amount of water vapor in the air, and can refer to any one of several measurements of humidity. Formally, humid air is not "moist air" but a mixture of water vapor and other constituents of air, and humidity is defined in terms of the water content of this mixture,...

.
Cold fronts may feature narrow bands of thunderstorm
Thunderstorm
A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm, a lightning storm, thundershower or simply a storm is a form of weather characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere known as thunder. The meteorologically assigned cloud type associated with the...

s and severe weather
Severe weather
Severe weather phenomena are weather conditions that are hazardous to human life and property.- Examples Include :Severe weather can occur under a variety of situations, but three characteristics are generally needed: a temperature or moisture boundary, moisture, and , instability in the...

, and may on occasion be preceded by squall line
Squall line
A squall line is a line of severe thunderstorms that can form 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....

s or dry line
Dry line
A dry line separates moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and dry desert air from the south-western states . The dry line is an important factor in severe weather frequency in the Great Plains of North America...

s. Warm front
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...

s are usually preceded by stratiform precipitation
Precipitation (meteorology)
In meteorology, precipitation In meteorology, precipitation In meteorology, precipitation (also known as one of the classes of hydrometeors, which are atmospheric water phenomena is any product of the condensation of atmospheric water vapor that falls under gravity. The main forms of precipitation...

 and fog
Fog
Fog is a collection of water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the air at or near the Earth's surface. While fog is a type of stratus cloud, the term "fog" is typically distinguished from the more generic term "cloud" in that fog is low-lying, and the moisture in the fog is often generated...

. The weather usually clears quickly after a front's passage. Some fronts produce no precipitation and little cloudiness, although there is invariably a wind shift.

Cold fronts and occluded front
Occluded front
An occluded front is formed during the process of cyclogenesis when a cold front overtakes a warm front. When this occurs, the warm air is separated from the cyclone center at the Earth's surface...

s generally move from west to east, while warm fronts move poleward
Geographical pole
A geographical pole is either of the two points—the north pole and the south pole—on the surface of a rotating planet where the axis of rotation meets the surface of the body...

. Because of the greater density of air in their wake, cold fronts and cold occlusions move faster than warm fronts and warm occlusions. Mountain
Mountain
Image:Himalaya_annotated.jpg|thumb|right|The Himalayan mountain range with Mount Everestrect 58 14 160 49 Chomo Lonzorect 200 28 335 52 Makalurect 378 24 566 45 Mount Everestrect 188 581 920 656 Tibetan Plateaurect 250 406 340 427 Rong River...

s and warm bodies of water can slow the movement of fronts. When a front becomes stationary
Stationary front
A stationary front is a boundary between two different air masses, neither of which is strong enough to replace the other. On a weather map, this is shown by an inter-playing series of blue spikes pointing one direction and red domes pointing the other. They tend to remain essentially in the same...

, and the density contrast across the frontal boundary vanishes, the front can degenerate into a line which separates regions of differing wind velocity, known as a shearline. This is most common over the open ocean.

Modification


Air masses can be modified in a variety of ways. Surface flux from underlying vegetation, such as forest, acts to moisten the overlying air mass. Heat from underlying warmer waters can significantly modify an air mass over distances as short as 35 kilometres (21.7 mi) to 40 kilometres (24.9 mi). For example, southwest of extratropical cyclone
Extratropical cyclone
Extratropical cyclones, sometimes called mid-latitude cyclones or wave cyclones, are a group of cyclones defined as synoptic scale low pressure weather systems that occur in the middle latitudes of the Earth having neither tropical nor polar characteristics, and are connected with fronts and...

s, curved cyclonic flow bringing cold air across the relatively warm water bodies can lead to narrow lake-effect snow bands. Those bands bring strong localized precipitation since large water bodies such as lakes efficiently store heat that results in significant temperature differences (larger than 13 °C or 23 °F) between the water surface and the air above. Because of this temperature difference, warmth and moisture are transported upward, condensing into vertically oriented clouds (see satellite picture) which produce snow showers. The temperature decrease with height and cloud depth are directly affected by both the water temperature and the large-scale environment. The stronger the temperature decrease with height, the deeper the clouds get, and the greater the precipitation rate becomes.
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