Breakdown: Why scientists are studying mysterious temperature patterns on Jupiter

Published: Jan. 8, 2023 at 9:39 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - NASA scientists have completed a 40-year study tracking temperatures in Jupiter’s upper troposphere -- the layer of the atmosphere where its signature striped, colorful clouds form.

Like Earth, Jupiter’s troposphere is where clouds form and storms erupt.

This longest-ever study found unexpected patterns in how temperatures of Jupiter’s “belts” and “zones” change over time.

NASA scientists have known since NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 missions from the 1970s that, in general, colder temperatures are associated with Jupiter’s lighter and whiter bands (known as zones), while the darker brown-red bands (known as belts) are locations of warmer temperatures. But there wasn’t enough data sets to understand how temperatures vary over the long-term.

The new research, published Dec. 19 in Nature Astronomy, found by studying images of the bright infrared glow (invisible to the human eye) that rises from warmer regions of the atmosphere, directly measuring Jupiter’s temperatures above the colorful clouds. The scientists collected these images at regular intervals over three of Jupiter’s orbits around the Sun, each of which lasts 12 Earth years.

During this process, researcheers discovered that Jupiter’s temperatures rise and fall following definite periods that aren’t tied to the seasons* or any other cycles scientists know about.

  • *Because Jupiter has weak seasons – the planet is tilted on its axis only 3 degrees, compared to Earth’s jaunty 23.5 degrees – scientists didn’t expect to find temperatures on Jupiter varying in such regular cycles.

Additionally, scientists found a strange connection between temperature shifts in regions thousands of miles apart: As temperatures went up at specific latitudes in the northern hemisphere, they went down at the same latitudes in the southern hemisphere – like a mirror image across the equator.

“That was the most surprising of all,” said Glenn Orton, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of the study. “We found a connection between how the temperatures varied at very distant latitudes. It’s similar to a phenomenon we see on Earth, where weather and climate patterns in one region can have a noticeable influence on weather elsewhere, with the patterns of variability seemingly ‘teleconnected’ across vast distances through the atmosphere.”

The next challenge is to find out what causes these recurrent and seemingly synchronized changes.

“We’ve solved one part of the puzzle now, which is that the atmosphere shows these natural cycles,” said co-author Leigh Fletcher of the University of Leicester in England. “To understand what’s driving these patterns and why they occur on these particular timescales, we need to explore both above and below the cloudy layers.”

One possible explanation became apparent at the equator: The study authors found that temperature variations higher up, in the stratosphere, seemed to rise and fall in a pattern that is the opposite of how temperatures behave in the troposphere, suggesting changes in the stratosphere influence changes in the troposphere and vice versa.

The study is a major step toward a better understanding of what drives weather at our solar system’s largest planet and eventually being able to forecast it.

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