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Ocean physics can explain Jupiter’s massive cyclones

A new study led by the University of California San Diego (UCSD) has used ocean physics to explain the forces driving the massive cyclones occurring at Jupiter’s poles. Until now, researchers have identified eight polar cyclones at Jupiter’s north pole and five at its south pole, each with a radius of over 620 miles. According to the scientists, these cyclones share similarities to ocean vortices and are driven by moist convection (the rising of hotter, less dense air).

“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,” said study lead author Lia Siegelman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD. “These are especially evident on high-resolution satellite images of plankton blooms for example.”  

Dr. Siegelman and her colleagues used an array of infrared images capturing Jupiter’s north polar region, particularly the polar vortex cluster. These images were sent back to Earth by the Juno spacecraft, a NASA-funded satellite which is orbiting Jupiter since 2016. The scientists calculated wind speed and direction by tracking the movements of clouds between images, and identified hot and cold regions by analyzing cloud thickness (with hotter regions corresponding to thinner clouds).

Next, by applying principles used in geophysical fluid dynamics, the researchers discovered that the rapidly rising air within Jupiter’s polar clouds acts as an energy source in the formation of this planet’s huge polar cyclones, in a similar way in which moist convection drives the formation of ocean vortices on Earth.

According to Dr. Siegelman, understanding Jupiter’s energy system, which is much larger than the Earth’s, could also help us better understand the physical mechanisms at play on our own planet, by identifying energetic patterns that could also exist on Earth.

“To be able to study a planet that is so far away and find physics that apply there is fascinating,” she said. “It begs the question, do these processes also hold true for our own blue dot?”

The study is published in the journal Nature Physics.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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