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Giant Storms: A Mark of Magnificence in the Heavens
Mar 1, 2017

When taking a quick glance at the planets in our solar system you might be surprised to discover what rages beneath seemingly calm surfaces. Just as storms happen on Earth, the other planets are also afflicted by storms – only these storms are so strong, they can make a hurricane look like a gentle rain shower.

A tornado that is bigger than the Earth: The Great Red Spot

The storms of a gas giant like Jupiter, a planet 1300 times bigger than Earth, are very fierce. Scientists who have studied Jupiter discovered that its high rotational rate – a day is only approximately 10 hours – leads to the formation of moving gas zones and east-west air jets. The air currents in these bands wrap the planet like colorful belts and they move in opposite directions at around 600 km per hour. The collision of these horizontal cloud bands leads to giant storms.

The most famous giant storm on Jupiter is the Great Red Spot. This giant anticyclone is three times bigger than the Earth. It rotates counter-clockwise and has existed for 340 years. Since Jupiter is made only of gas, it doesn’t have a physical topography. Therefore, the storm can’t find a place to empty its energy. The winds around the Great Red Spot, which looks like a red oval eye, have a speed of 400 km per hour.

It’s still a matter of debate as to how the Great Red Spot reached such a giant size. Scientists have argued multiple theories. One theory states that this giant storm has been fed by an internal heat energy and engulfs all the other storms it comes across. As the hot gases that comprise Jupiter's atmosphere rise from lower levels to higher levels, eddies form and converge. As cooler gas falls back to the planet’s surface, it causes a swirling motion. These eddies can last for a long time, because there is no solid surface to provide friction. Many adjacent eddies are engulfed and merge with the spot, adding to the energy of the storm and contributing to its longevity.

Other scientists mention that the Great Red Spot has begun to shrink. While the spot was about 41,000 km wide in the 1800s, it had shrunk to 23,300 km in 1979, according to the measurements of Voyager 1 and 2. Recent Hubble telescope measurements report the storm’s size as 16,500 km wide. Another large storm, whose diameter is as large as the Earth’s, was observed below the Great Red Spot.

Winds twice as fast as sound

During hurricanes and tornadoes, the winds on Earth are strong enough to demolish buildings. Yet if we spent a day on Neptune, where the fastest winds in the solar system occur, we wouldn’t be so impressed with the Earth’s winds. Winds on Neptune can reach speeds of 2400 km per hour. This is twice as fast as the speed of sound (1235.5 km per hour).

Astronomers think that freezing weather conditions may lead to the strong winds on Neptune. As on Jupiter, there is no friction to slow the currents down – though here the culprit is an icy planet, not a gaseous one. The fastest jet streams are visible as dark spots. The most important ones were the Great Dark Spot, located in the southern hemisphere, and the Small Dark Spot, which was south of the great dark spot.

The Great Dark Spot was an anticyclonic storm and was first discovered by Voyager 2 in 1989. It was about the same size as Earth, and was very cold and dark. There were silky cirrus clouds around the spot made up of crystals of frozen methane. However, the Great Dark Spot was not observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994.

The Small Dark Spot, also called The Wizard’s Eye, was a southern cyclonic storm. It was also observed by Voyager 2. But again, when the Hubble observed Neptune in 1994, the storm had disappeared.

In lieu of these two storms, a new dark spot was discovered in the northern hemisphere. This storm, whose width is almost 2400 km, is still active. Apart from this storm, there are also speedy and comparatively small clouds called “scooters.”

When observed at a distance, Saturn and its giant rings seem quite taciturn. However, beneath the surface are rough storms like the Great White Spot, discovered in 1990, and the Giant Storm, discovered in 2010. Although cloud zones that are parallel to the equator are observed in Saturn’s atmosphere, the color and contrast between the bands are not as striking as on, say, Jupiter. In these neighboring zones the clouds move in opposite directions at enormous speed. White spots are observed when some of them interact, creating storms that can reach a truly gigantic size.

These storms can reach speeds of 1800 km per hour, making them the second fastest storms in the solar system after Neptune’s. The most striking storms on Saturn are those observed above the North Pole. These storms have an unusual hexagonal shape, which is due to atmospheric vortices in the polar regions. The biggest of these storms has a width of about 13,800 km. Once again, the existence of these huge storms was proved by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1980 and 1981.

In 2009, the Giant Storm was observed more closely thanks to NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft. As a result of these observations, it has been revealed that the Giant Storm has existed for 30 years and has winds estimated at 480 km/ph.

When we look at other planets in the solar system, Venus has dramatic differences between high and low pressure in its atmosphere. The planet is covered by thick, heavy clouds made of sulfuric acid. Venus is made of active volcanoes, which produce toxic gases and constant heat; the planet is literally shaped by toxic smoke.

Mars is famous for giant red dust storms that blanket the entire planet and last for months. When Mariner 9 arrived on Mars in 1971, it found out that the atmosphere was thick with "a planet-wide robe of dust.” The only visible object was Mount Olympus Mons, which is nearly three times taller than Mount Everest.

Upon observing the atmospheres of nearby planets, and the enormous storms that torment them, it’s hard not to contemplate the enormous power that exists in the universe – and we find ourselves grateful that Earth was created in such a temperate manner. Without such an amenable climate, life wouldn’t be possible.