air mass, large body of air within the earth's atmosphere in which temperature and humidity, although varying at different heights, remain similar throughout the body at any one height. Air masses form over parts of the earth's surface called source regions, which are large bodies of water or landmasses with relatively uniform topography, often ranging hundreds of thousands of square miles in area. When a body of air remains over a source region for days or weeks, it reaches an equilibrium with the surface. Radiation and convection exchanges between the surface and the air determines the air mass characteristics. Air masses formed over oceans generally contain more moisture than continental ones; air masses formed in polar latitudes are colder than those from the tropics. As an air mass moves away from its source region, it brings its particular weather conditions to areas over which it travels. At the same time, its characteristic properties are slowly modified by exposure to new environments. The boundaries between air masses, called fronts, are, typically, zones of rapid transition from cold to warm or from dry to moist air. Turbulence at the boundary often breeds low-pressure storms.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.