Deep winds beneath Saturn's upper clouds from a seasonal long-lived planetary-scale storm
Publication date: 07 Jul 2011
Authors: Sánchez-Lavega, A., et al.
Copyright: Nature Publishing GroupConvective storms occur regularly in Saturn's atmosphere. Huge storms known as Great White Spots, which are ten times larger than the regular storms, are rarer and occur about once per Saturnian year (29.5 Earth years). Current models propose that the outbreak of a Great White Spot is due to moist convection induced by water. However, the generation of the global disturbance and its effect on Saturn's permanent winds have hitherto been unconstrained by data, because there was insufficient spatial resolution and temporal sampling to infer the dynamics of Saturn's weather layer (the layer in the troposphere where the cloud forms). Theoretically, it has been suggested that this phenomenon is seasonally controlled. Here we report observations of a storm at northern latitudes in the peak of a weak westward jet during the beginning of northern springtime, in accord with the seasonal cycle but earlier than expected. The storm head moved faster than the jet, was active during the two-month observation period, and triggered a planetary-scale disturbance that circled Saturn but did not significantly alter the ambient zonal winds. Numerical simulations of the phenomenon show that, as on Jupiter, Saturn's winds extend without decay deep down into the weather layer, at least to the water-cloud base at pressures of 10-12 bar, which is much deeper than solar radiation penetrates.