SEP 28, 2020 7:46 AM PDT

Solving the Mystery of Jupiter's Astonishing Storms

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Hurricanes don't only happen on Earth; the giant planet Jupiter is also home to swirling storms. On Jupiter, however, multiple storms are arranged in a geometric pattern near the gaseous planet's South Pole. NASA's Juno space probe captured images of this pattern in 2019, prompting scientists to try to learn more about this pentagon or hexagon formation of storms.

Storms gathered at the south pole of Jupiter, as imaged by the Juno probe./ Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers in the lab of Andy Ingersoll, a Caltech Professor of Planetary Science, have now figured out why these storms behave this way. The math they used to do it was derived from a proof by British mathematical physicist Lord Kelvin, who worked around 150 years ago.

"If you went below the cloud tops, you would probably find liquid water raindrops, hail, and snow," said Ingersoll. "The winds would be hurricane-force winds. Hurricanes on Earth are a good analog of the individual vortices within these arrangements we see on Jupiter, but there is nothing so stunningly beautiful here."

Jupiter's storms, like Earth's hurricanes, tend to form near the equator and then move toward the poles. On Earth, however, they dissipate as they move farther away while on Jupiter, they remain robust, and are still fully formed when they reach the poles.

"The difference is that on the Earth, hurricanes run out of warm water and they run into continents," Ingersoll said. There's no land on Jupiter, "so there's much less friction because there's nothing to rub against. There's just more gas under the clouds. Jupiter also has heat leftover from its formation that is comparable to the heat it gets from the sun, so the temperature difference between its equator and its poles is not as great as it is on Earth."

These observations are not enough to explain why the storms arrange into a geometrical pattern once they get to the South Pole, noted Ingersoll. Saturn, another gas giant, simply has one humongous storm at each pole, without a geometric arrangement of individual storms.

The scientists brought the math of Lord Kelvin together with work performed in 1878 by American physicist Alfred Mayer. Mayer found that when circular magnets were placed in a pool of water, they would spontaneously form a geometric configuration, just as storms do on Jupiter. The shapes they made depended on the number of magnets.

"Back in the 19th century, people were thinking about how spinning pieces of fluid would arrange themselves into polygons," Ingersoll explained. "Although there were lots of laboratory studies of these fluid polygons, no one had thought of applying that to a planetary surface."

With a set of equations called the shallow-water equations, the scientists built a computer model of the events on Jupiter and ran simulations.

"We wanted to explore the combination of parameters that makes these cyclones stable," said lead study author and UC Berkely postdoctoral fellow Cheng Li. "There are established theories that predict that cyclones tend to merge at the pole due to the rotation of the planet and so we found in the initial trial runs."

They also determined that if a ring of winds turned in the opposite direction of the storms, an anti-cyclonic ring, the storms would repel rather than merging.

"Other planets provide a much wider range of behaviors than what you see on Earth," said Ingersoll, "so you study the weather on other planets in order to stress-test your theories."

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Caltech, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
NOV 22, 2020
Space & Astronomy
The Mystery of the Blue Ring Nebula is Solved
NOV 22, 2020
The Mystery of the Blue Ring Nebula is Solved
In 2004, the Blue Ring Nebula was first identified. It appeared as a faint gas blob with a star at its center and was un ...
DEC 04, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Fusions in Action: Scientists Confirm a Different Way the Sun Produces Energy
DEC 04, 2020
Fusions in Action: Scientists Confirm a Different Way the Sun Produces Energy
Since its formation, the Sun has been the main power source for all objects within its irradiation range, putting out 3. ...
FEB 07, 2021
Space & Astronomy
NASA Promotes the Development of Hybrid Aircraft
FEB 07, 2021
NASA Promotes the Development of Hybrid Aircraft
Air travel is thought to be a significant contributor to emissions that lead to climate change. NASA is now launching an ...
FEB 10, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Do Salt and Melting Ice Cause Landslides on Mars?
FEB 10, 2021
Do Salt and Melting Ice Cause Landslides on Mars?
Recurrent slope lineae (RSL) are dark flows that extend downhill on Mars to form sandy patterns on its surface. Research ...
MAR 16, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Revealing the Origins of Jupiter's Spectacular Auroras
MAR 16, 2021
Revealing the Origins of Jupiter's Spectacular Auroras
Many years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope was able to catch a glimpse of amazing auroras that occur on Jupiter. Now res ...
APR 03, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Scientists Find Strange Green Rock on Mars
APR 03, 2021
Scientists Find Strange Green Rock on Mars
NASA's Perseverance rover has found a strange, green rock on the surface of Mars that is having its science team' ...
Loading Comments...