Essential Science: Mystery of Jupiter’s unusual storms revealed

Posted Sep 28, 2020 by Tim Sandle
The appearance of dazzlingly geometric storm patterns on Jupiter's south pole have confounded scientists for decades. Now researchers think they have an answer to the climatic mysteries of the super-sized planet.
This image of Jupiter was taken on April 3  2017  when the planet was closest to Earth in 2017. The ...
This image of Jupiter was taken on April 3, 2017, when the planet was closest to Earth in 2017. The Great Red Spot appears on the left side, along with a smaller, reddish storm in the lower right dubbed "Red Spot Jr."
Across the south pole of Jupiter, a collection of swirling storms catches the eye of the intrepid astronomer. These are not normal storm patterns, since the violent weather patterns appear to be arranged in a repeating geometric pattern.
Fascinating storms
Storm clouds are rooted deep in Jupiter's atmosphere. Scientists have recently charted how these unusual features are affecting the planet's white zones and colorful belts. The storm patterns are creating disturbances in their flow and even changing their color.
The Great Red Spot as seen from Voyager 1 This dramatic view of Jupiter s Great Red Spot and its sur...
The Great Red Spot as seen from Voyager 1 This dramatic view of Jupiter's Great Red Spot and its surroundings was obtained by Voyager 1 on February 25, 1979, when the spacecraft was 5.7 million miles (9.2 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Cloud details as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across can be seen here. The colorful, wavy cloud pattern to the left of the Red Spot is a region of extraordinarily complex and variable wave motion. To give a sense of Jupiter's scale, the white oval storm
These storms occur through the production of plumes that transmit supercooled ammonia cloud above ammonia-ice clouds until the ammonia freezes. This produces a bright, white plume that stands out against the colorful bands encircling Jupiter.
What is happening at Jupiter’s south pole?
The presence of the storms were detected by NASA's Juno space probe during 2019. While there are some similarities to hurricanes on Earth, there are also some atypical actions on display with the planet’s weather. With Jupiter, the hurricanes occur at the poles. This is something not seen on Earth.
Jupiter's constant storms are gigantic compared to those on Earth, with thunderheads reaching 40 miles from base to top.
Artist s depiction of Juno orbiting Jupiter.
Artist's depiction of Juno orbiting Jupiter.
It is also of interest to astrophysicists that the multiple storms begin at the poles and proceed twirl around each other. These storm events resemble the shape of a pentagon or hexagon.
The possibility of such formations were first detected by the Jumino probe and reported in 2018. Juno's first five orbits revealed persistent polygonal patterns of large cyclones.
Scientists at Caltech have applied a mathematical model to pose an answer to the riddle. The answer appears to be on Earth, since the storms of Jupiter bear a strange resemblance to those that afflict the East Coast of the U.S. on a regular basis. the key difference is that the Jupiter storms are bigger. Far bigger.
Unlike the patterns that occur on Earth, Jupiter's storms develop close to the equator and proceed to drift towards the poles, as they run out of warm water. On Earth hurricanes dissipate before they get anywhere close to the polar regions.
The equator of Jupiter is also something of a puzzle. Scientists have noted a dark ribbon of weak hydrogen ion emissions that encircles Jupiter, and this may hold clues as to the planet’s magnetic equator.
The events on Jupiter are speculated to be because the vapor is more of even temperature and there is absence of friction.
This does not explain the geometric pattern of the storms. Taking the other large planet in the solar system – Saturn – the same pattern is not repeated. Saturn has one continuous storm at its south pole, but nothing resembling the geometric arrangement visible across Jupiter.
The answer lies in mathematical models that can explain the spinning pieces of fluid, and how they arrange themselves into polygons. This is based on how cyclones merge due to the rotation of the planet and the presence of an anticyclonic ring that causes individual storms to repel each other (rather than merge).
Research paper
The research findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is titled “Modeling the stability of polygonal patterns of vortices at the poles of Jupiter as revealed by the Juno spacecraft.”
Essential Science
This article forms part of Digital Journal's long-running Essential Science series. Each week we take a dive into a new science topic.
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