Weather on Jupiter

by Jerry Coffey on June 17, 2008

The weather on Jupiter, like everything else about the planet, is large. Storms that grow to cover thousands of km within hours, winds whipping the clouds at 360 kph, and storms that last for hundreds of years are typical. Here are a few of the weather features on Jupiter.

Jupiter is wrapped in clouds of ammonia crystals that can be seen as bands of yellows, browns, and whites. The clouds are located in the tropopause and are arranged into bands of different latitudes, known as tropical regions. These bands are produced by air flowing in different directions at various latitudes. Lighter-hued areas where the atmosphere rises are called zones. Darker regions where air falls are called belts. When these opposing flows interact, storms and turbulence appear. The cloud layer is only about 50 km deep, and there are at least two decks of clouds: a thick lower deck and a thin clearer region. Some scientists believe that there is a thin layer of water clouds under the ammonia layer. The theory is based on flashes of lightening. The lightening is caused by water’s polarity, which makes it capable of creating the charge separation needed to produce lightning. Lightening on Jupiter can be a thousand times as powerful as lightning on the Earth.

The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is one of the best known features in the Solar System. The storm is located 22° south of the equator and is larger in diameter than Earth. It is thought to have been in existence when Giovanni Casinni observed the planet in the 1600s. The storm rotates in a counter-clockwise motion. It has been known to shrink and grow. It has been as large as 40,000 km in diameter. It rotates differentially than the rest of the atmosphere: sometimes faster and sometimes slower. During its recorded history it has traveled several times around the planet relative to any fixed position below it.

Storms like the Great Red Spot are common on gas giants. Jupiter also has white ovals and brown ovals, which are lesser unnamed storms. White ovals tend to consist of relatively cool clouds within the upper atmosphere. Brown ovals are warmer and located within the “normal cloud layer”. Such storms can last as little as a few hours or stretch on for centuries.

The weather on Jupiter is damaging at all times, but the sudden storms can be an impossible hazard for spacecraft to overcome. Can you imagine what 360 kph winds would do to every building on Earth?

Here’s an article from Universe Today about how the Hubble Space Telescope has watched Jupiter change over time, and how gigantic storms on Jupiter can grow in a single day.

Here’s an article from NASA about storms converging on Jupiter, and an article about how Jupiter’s heat creates the storms.

We’ve also recorded an entire show just on Jupiter for Astronomy Cast. Listen to it here, Episode 56: Jupiter, and Episode 57: Jupiter’s Moons.


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