Planetary Pastry, Second Course

We’re still sitting in Al’s coffee shop.  “OK, Cathleen, so Jupiter’s Great Red Spot acts like a hurricane turned inside-out.  Where’s the problem?”

“Just that it goes completely against all the computer models we’ve built to understand and predict hurricane activity.  It’ll take a whole new generation of even more complicated models for Jupiter-like planets.”

“Here’s the doughnuts you asked for, Cathleen.”

“Thanks, Al.  Perfect timing. <drawing on a paper napkin>  Let’s look at hurricanes first, OK, Sy?”


“We’ll start with this doughnut that I’ve just taken a bite out of.  First thing that happens is that warm ocean water heats up the overlying air.  Warmed air rises, so we’ve got an updraft.”

“And then?”

“The rising air is humid (ocean air, remember?).  As it rises it cools and forces moisture to condense out.  Upward flow stops when the warmed air hits the top of the troposphere.  But there’s still more warm air pushing up the plume.  The cooled air has to go somewhere so it spreads out.  That’s where these red arrows on my paper napkin go horizontal.  The cooled air, loaded with water droplets, is heavy so it starts sinking which is why the red arrows turn downward.  They move back across that ocean water again ’cause they’re caught in the inflow.  Full cycle and that’s number 1 here, got it?”


“Hey, Cathleen,  are you gonna need more paper napkins?”Donuts 1
“A couple should be enough, Al, thanks.  Now we get to number 2, the Coriolis thing. That’s always tough to talk students through but let’s try.  The Earth rotates once every 24 hours, right, and its circumference at the Equator is 25,000 miles, so relative to the Sun anything at the Equator is flying eastward at about 1,000 miles per hour.  Any place north of the Equator has to be going slower than that, and further north, even slower.  With me, Sy?”

“Gimme a minute … OK, I suppose.”

“Good.  Now suppose a balloon is floating in the breeze somewhere south of that rising plume.  Relative to the plume, it’ll have eastward momentum.  Now the balloon’s caught in the plume’s inflow but it doesn’t go straight in because of that eastward momentum.  Instead it’s going to arc around the plume.  See how I’ve got it coming in off-center?  Al, would that be clockwise or counterclockwise if you’re looking down from a satellite or something?”

“Umm … counterclockwise, yeah?”

“Mm-hm.  What about a balloon that starts out north of the plume?”

“Uhh … It’ll be going slower than the plume, so the plume gets ahead of it and it’ll arc … hey, counterclockwise again!”

“How ’bout that?  Anywhere in the northern hemisphere, air flowing into a low-pressure region will turn it counterclockwise.  As the inflow draws from greater distances, there’s a greater speed difference to drive the counterclockwise spin.  So that’s number 2 here.  Add those two cycles together and you’ve got number 3, which spirals all around the doughnut.  And there’s your hurricane.”

“Cool.  So how does that model not account for the Great Red Spot?”

“To begin with, the Spot’s in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere so it ought to be going clockwise which it definitely is not.  And there’s no broad band of surrounding clouds — just a lot of structure inside the ring, not outside.  There’s something else going on that swamps Coriolis.”

“So how’s Jupiter different from Earth?  Besides being bigger, of course.”

“Lots of ways, Sy.  You know how labels on healthcare products divide the contents into active ingredients and inert ingredients?  The inert ones just carry or modify the effects of the active ones.  Atmospheres work the same way.  On Earth the inert ingredients are nitrogen and oxygen…”

“Hey, oxygen’s important!”

“Sure, Al, but not when you’re modeling air movement.  The important active ingredient is water — it transports a lot of heat when it evaporates from one place and condenses somewhere else.  The biggest outstanding problem in Earth meteorology is accounting for clouds.”

“You’re gonna tell us that Jupiter’s inactive ingredients are hydrogen and helium, I suppose.”

“Precisely, Sy.  Jupiter has two active ingredients, water and ammonia, plus smaller amounts of sulfur and phosphorus compounds.  Makes for a crazy complicated modeling problem.  I’m going to need more pastries.”

“Comin’ up.”


~~ Rich Olcott


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