Jupiter, Saturn's Weather May Come From Different Forces Than Earth's

Researchers' simulations show how Jupiter and Saturn's weather is driven via internal forces.
Brad Bergan
Assembled image from the now-defunct Galileo spacecraft.NASA / JPL-Caltech / Kevin M. Gill / Flickr

Researchers found evidence suggesting the weather on Jupiter and Saturn might stem from radically different forces than weather on Earth, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances.


Jupiter, Saturn's weather driven via radically different systems than Earth

Three researchers — two from Harvard University and one from the University of Alberta — used computer simulations to show how major weather systems on Jupiter and Saturn could be driven via internal instead of external forces (like Earth is), which might explain bizarre formations like large anticyclones and Jupiters intimidating red spot, reports phys.org.

Earth's weather is mainly driven via the interaction between the planet and the solar system environment — within the thin layer of atmosphere near the surface. For decades, scientists thought weather on other planets worked much the same way — including Jupiter and Saturn. But in the new study, researchers show this line of thought is going in the wrong direction.

The new work ran two simulations to mimic Saturn and Jupiter's discrete conditions. Instead of assuming weather patterns arise from turbulence happening above the gas giants' surfaces, the researchers programmed the simulations to include turbulent convection — running wild inside concentric spherical shells as they rotate inside the planet.

'Thin,' 'thick shell' approaches help explain Jupiter, Saturn's weather systems

One simulation — called the "thin shell" approach — reproduced the behavior of convection layers on gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn — processes having little-to-no interaction with either planet's magnetic field.

The researchers' simulation displayed cyclones, zonal jets, and anticyclones coalescing spontaneously on both gas giants. The second simulation — predictably named the "thick shell" approach — was designed to mimic the interactions between the planets' outer hydrodynamic layer and the inner dynamo.

This second simulation showed a massive ejection of plumes from the magnetic layer — giving rise to what the researchers describe as pancake-shaped weather patterns near the surface.

Studying Saturn, Jupiter's weather could help explain how life-supporting solar systems form

The researchers think some of the weather patterns on both Saturn and Jupiter probably stem from jet streams and additional, sub-surface processes. According to their simulations, Jupiter's renowned red spot could have come to be when the gas giant's dynamo region set off processes later responsible for the large anticyclones strewn across the atmosphere.

As the oldest-known planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn — along with their many moons — hold some of the most interesting secrets to the formation of the entire solar system. Coming to know how the weather works on Jupiter, for example, could help scientists understand why medium-sized stars like our sun form planetary systems capable of supporting life intelligent enough to ask how it got there.


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