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Fronts have been recognized as hotspots of intense biological activity and are important targets for observation to understand coastal ecology and transport in a changing ocean. With high spatial and temporal variability, detection and event response for frontal zones is challenging for robotic platforms like autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). These vehicles have shown their versatility and cost-effectiveness in using automated approaches to detect a range of features. Targeting them for in-situ observation and sampling capabilities for frontal zones then provides an important tool for characterizing rapid and episodic changes. We introduce a novel momentum-based front detection (MBFD) algorithm which utilizes a Kalman filter and a momentum accumulator function to identify significant temperature gradients associated with upwelling fronts. MBFD is designed to work at a number of levels including onboard an AUV, on-shore with a sparse real-time data stream and post-experiment on a full resolution data set gathered by a vehicle. Such a multi-layered approach plays an important role in mixed human-robot decision making for oceanographers making coordinated sampling and asset allocation strategies in large multi-robot field experiments in the coastal ocean.