Go with the flow

Juno data shows a surprising connection between Earth’s oceans and Jupiter’s cyclones

Fluid dynamics studied in Earth’s oceans show what drives Jupiter’s powerful cyclones.

Enhanced image by Gerald Eichstädt and Sean Doran (CC BY-NC-SA) based on images provided courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

The roiling storms of Jupiter are one of the most captivating sights in the Solar System, but to one team of researchers, they look strikingly similar to something here on Earth.

Enhanced image by Gerald Eichstädt and Sean Doran (CC BY-NC-SA) based on images provided courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Nora Carol Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Research led by oceanographer Lia Siegelman applies fluid dynamics principles used in the study of Earth’s oceans to the cyclones on Jupiter’s north pole.

“When I saw the richness of the turbulence around the Jovian cyclones with all the filaments and smaller eddies, it reminded me of the turbulence you see in the ocean around eddies.”

Lead author Lia Siegelman

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Erik Simonsen/Photodisc/Getty Images

Siegelman’s research was driven by satellite images of both Jupiter and Earth.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

NASA’s Juno satellite has been circling Jupiter since 2016, providing unprecedented views of the gas giant and its moons.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Ocean Color/NOAA-20/NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP

These images reminded Siegelman of swirling ocean currents seen on Earth, which are particularly visible around plankton blooms.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

For the new study, published in Nature Physics, researchers examined infrared images to determine the thickness of Jovian clouds.

Hot spots on the images represent thinner clouds, which allow Juno to see further into Jupiter’s atmosphere. Cold spots indicate thicker clouds, which block the planet’s heat from the satellite.

L. Siegelman, et al. NATURE PHYSICS (2022)

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Prateek Sarpal

Combined with analyses of Jupiter’s wind speed, the team’s research supports the hypothesis that moist convection drives energy from small to large scales on Jupiter.

As hotter, less dense air rises, it causes turbulence in Jupiter’s clouds. When enough of this small-scale turbulence occurs, it stirs the atmosphere enough to generate large-scale cyclones.

Gerald Eichstädt and Sean Doran (CC BY-NC-SA) based on images provided Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Norman Kuring/NASA's Ocean Color Web

A similar process of convection pushes warm water to the surface of Earth’s oceans, driving water currents around the globe.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

Jupiter’s large-scale polar cyclones can have radii of more than 600 miles and wind speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

Previous simulations have supported the idea that moist convection sustains Jupiter’s cyclones, but this study provides the first direct evidence.

Roberto Machado Noa/Moment/Getty Images

Siegelman says studies of Jupiter’s energy system could help scientists better understand similar dynamics at play in Earth’s atmosphere.