Surprisingly, storms on Jupiter and Earth have something in common

jupiter storm

The gas giant Jupiter is a whopping 452 million miles away from Earth and more than 11 times bigger, but is similar in at least one way. Some of the geophysical forces behind the enormous planet’s infamous storms behave similarly to those on Earth. New research indicates that the roiling storms at the planet’s polar regions are powered by processes that are known to physicists studying the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean. The findings are described in a study published June 6 in the journal Nature Physics and offers a new way of understanding similar meteorological processes home on Earth.

Storms of Jupiter

Lia Siegelman, a physical oceanographer at the University of San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, first saw this connection in 2018. She noticed some similarities between ocean turbulence on Earth and images of some of Jupiter’s huge cyclones.  

[Related: Why a 3,000-mile-long jet stream on Jupiter surprised NASA scientists.]

According to Siegelman, air and water are both considered fluids in physics, so applying ocean physical dynamics to a gas giant like Jupiter is not quite as out of this world as it may seem. 

“Jupiter is basically an ocean of gas,” Siegelman said in a statement. 

In 2022, Siegleman and her team published a study based on this initial observation. They analyzed high-resolution infrared images of Jupiter’s cyclones taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft and found a type of convection similar to what occurs on Earth helps maintain Jupiter’s storms. These maelstroms can be thousands of miles wide and last for years. The planet’s signature Great Red Spot has been raging for more than 300 years. This initial study focused on Jupiter’s cyclones, the team was also intrigued by the wispy tendrils or filaments in between the cyclone’s gassy vortices.

Fronts and filaments

In the new study, the team focused on these filaments. They found these wispy tendrils between Jupiter’s cyclones work together with convection to promote and sustain Jupiter’s giant storms. Specifically, the filaments somewhat resemble what oceanographers and meteorologists call fronts–a boundary between gas or liquid masses with different densities due to differences in various properties like temperature. On Earth, these are the “warm fronts” or “cold fronts” that are mentioned in weather forecasts nearly every day. One of a front’s key features is that their leading edge has strong vertical velocities that can generate winds or currents. 

To better understand the role of the filaments between cyclones on Jupiter, Siegelman worked with co-author Patrice Klein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, and the Ecole Normale Superieure. They looked at a series of infrared images of Jupiter’s north polar region that were taken in 30-second increments by Juno. The infrared camera aboard the spacecraft allowed the team to calculate the temperature, as the bright areas of the image were warmer and the darker areas were cooler. On Jupiter, hotter parts of the atmosphere corresponded to thinner clouds. Colder parts represent thicker cloud cover that blocks out more of the heat emanating from the planet’s extremely hot core. The team then tracked the movement of clouds and filaments across the 30 second intervals  and calculated the horizontal wind speeds. 

[Related: Jupiter’s icy ocean worlds could be cool travel destinations in the future.]

They calculated the vertical wind speeds and saw that the filaments do actually behave similarly to fronts on Earth. The vertical wind speeds located at the edges of fronts on Jupiter meant that the fronts were involved in transporting energy–in the form of heat–from the planet’s hot interior to its upper atmosphere. This fuels the giant cyclones. While convection is the main driver, the fronts power about 25 percent of Jupiter’s cyclones and 40 percent of the planet’s vertical heat transport.

“These cyclones on Jupiter’s poles have persisted since they were first observed in 2016,” said Siegelman. “These filaments in between the large vortices are relatively small but they are an important mechanism for sustaining the cyclones. It’s fascinating that fronts and convection are present and influential on Earth and Jupiter–it suggests that these processes may also be present on other turbulent fluid bodies in the universe.” 

Better connections 

Jupiter’s massive scale and the high-resolution imagery from Juno can allow for a clearer visualization of the ways that smaller-scale activities like fronts connect to the larger ones like cyclones and the atmosphere at large. These connections are often difficult to observe on Earth, where they are smaller and ephemeral.

The new Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite could also make these kinds of ocean phenomena easier to observe in future studies. 

“There is some cosmic beauty in finding out that these physical mechanisms on Earth exist on other far-away planets,” said Siegelman.

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