stormy worlds

How the raging storms of Saturn and Jupiter form

Surface storms can tell us what's going on in the planets' interiors.

NASA

Jupiter is known for its raging storms, none perhaps more famous than the Great Red Spot. This vortex has been sweeping across the planet for hundreds of years.

Watch the winds turn in the Great Red Spot.NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt/Justin Cowart

NASA

Similarly to Jupiter, another Solar System gas giant has clouds made of ammonia ice crystals: Saturn.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

But Saturn's clouds are far colder than Jupiter's. On Saturn, cloud top temperatures can reach as low as -400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Scientists have always assumed that the weather on these two gas giant planets occurs through a similar process to that on Earth's, which is driven by processes that take place at a thin layer of the planets' surface.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

But new research published in the journal Science Advances suggests that the weather on Jupiter and Saturn is driven by processes deep beneath the surface.

International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley) and team Acknowledgments: Mahdi Zamani.

The study suggests that the two planets' tumultuous surface storms and jet streams are generated by processes thousands of kilometers beneath their surfaces.

The researchers created 3D supercomputer simulations of the weather conditions on Jupiter and Saturn and included the effects of deep planetary convection to come up with the final results.

“Although some of these ideas have been imagined in the past, our study is first to provide concrete theoretical evidence for them.”

Rakesh Yadav, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University's department of Earth and planetary science, and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

The new study also suggests Jupiter’s Great Red Spot formed when the planet’s dynamo region, a layer where electrical conductivity generates magnetic fields, lead to the formation of large anticyclones — when the wind goes clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.

By getting a better understanding of these strange weather phenomena, scientists hope to get a glimpse at the core of these gas giants.

The researchers behind the new study are hoping to gather more data on the weather of Jupiter and Saturn in order to examine their latest theory in more detail.

Read more stories about Jupiter's storms here.

NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)