Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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Weather of the Worlds

by Perry Pezzolanella, MVAS

Imagine trying to survive a crushing heat wave that can melt lead, choking dust on hurricane winds, downpours of rain where temperatures hover near -300ºF, icy winds over 1000 miles per hour, lightning that can vaporize a city. It should not take much imagination because such events do exist in the Solar System. Excluding Earth’s crazy weather, the following are ten of the possibly most extreme weather conditions among the other worlds. The journey begins at the edge of the Solar System and heads sunward.

10. Freeze Out. Pluto may no longer be classified a true planet, but it still keeps a frigid reputation of being one of the coldest places in the Solar System. Due to an unusual orbit which brings it closer to the Sun than Neptune at about 2.7 billion miles to as far as 4.6 billion miles, the temperature can range from -380ºF to -420ºF. This is cold enough to cause the thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide to freeze completely out onto the surface when Pluto is farthest from the Sun.

9. Supersonic Wind. Neptune owns the distinction of being the windiest planet in the Solar System with winds reaching 1400 miles per hour. These powerful jet streams girdle Neptune and are powered by the unusually large amount of internal heat that Neptune generates from a slowly shrinking core since its creation. The heat rises and the strong contrast with the -350ºF cold generates powerful winds and thunderstorms.

8. Traveling Ice Cap. Triton is a moon of Neptune that is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon and yet it has active geology and an atmosphere. Geysers pepper the surface and shoot plumes of nitrogen gas up to five miles high. They are located on the south polar ice cap that is currently pointed towards the Sun and sublimating. As the frozen methane ice cap sublimates in the relative -390ºF warmth, a breeze is created as it rises. The steady breeze is obvious as the towering plumes from the geysers are sheared off about five miles above the surface and carried towards the dark, colder, winter side of the moon where it condenses back onto the surface to form a new polar ice cap that will last for nearly a century before summer arrives. The atmosphere is very deep, about 500 miles, made mainly of nitrogen with a fine methane haze about twelve miles above the surface, but it is very thin, almost a vacuum.

7. Surreal Ice Fog. Uranus is tipped completely over on its side and takes 84 years to orbit the Sun. This means that one pole can experience nearly 42 years of darkness while the other experiences nearly 42 years of daylight. The cold pole becomes excessively cold and causes the methane in the atmosphere to freeze into an ice fog that covers the entire planet giving it a nearly featureless turquoise appearance.

6. Frigid Downpours. Titan is a moon of Saturn that is covered with drainage channels and lowlands resembling rivers and floodplains on Earth. Methane lakes dot the north polar region and a huge cloud caps the north pole as it emerges from winter. The clouds feed the channels and lakes with downpours of frighteningly frigid methane rain as cold as -290ºF. The rain is fierce enough at times to make it capable of forming channels, deltas, and carrying silt to create muddy lowlands.

5. Lightning Superbolts. Jupiter and Saturn are hot deep within like Neptune for the same reason and the rising warmth into the colder upper atmosphere creates strong winds and powerful thunderstorms. Some thunderstorms become so strong that they can generate lightning so huge that it can span a continent as large as Asia. The electrical power of these superbolts generates radio static that can be heard from Earth and could easily vaporize a city. These storms have been known to rage for weeks and even months, as the Great White Spot on Saturn did in late 1990.

4. Eternal Hurricanes. When it comes to storms, Jupiter reins supreme thanks to the Great Red Spot. This famous spot has been around since the invention of the telescope and is over twice the size of Earth. It is a giant hurricane with winds estimated at 400 miles per hour. The reddish color may be due to phosphorus compounds being churned up from deep down and freezing out at the very high cloud tops.

3. Smothering Dust Storms. Mars takes top honors for being the dustiest planet. The atmosphere may be 100 times thinner than Earth’s, but winds can reach 200 miles per hour. This is more than strong enough to get the fine, rusty dust airborne for miles and if conditions are favorable, the dust storm can quickly spread to cover all of Mars, as was the case in 1971 and 2001.

2. Red Tornadoes. The southwest U.S. deserts are known for dust devils where intense heat can lead to small areas of low pressure that begin to rapidly spin as the hot air rises. Few dust devils rarely exceed 2000 feet tall and resemble small tornadoes at worst that cause little or no damage. Mars can have hundreds of dust devils daily that race across the deserts and most do not get very big, but orbiting satellites have made stunning revelations. Martian dust devils are known to reach extreme proportions towering up to a mile high and nearly a hundred feet wide. These monsters can be a terrifying event if encountered as they will easily appear like red tornadoes that can pack a similar punch as their earthly Midwestern counterparts.

1. Crushing Heatwave. Venus is a planet where global warming has gone mad and is by far the hottest of all the planets. The atmosphere is composed primarily of carbon dioxide that effectively traps most of the heat it receives. The temperature soars to an average of 870ºF everywhere and it is only slightly cooler in the mountains, but even hotter in the lowlands. Carbon dioxide is a heavy gas and the atmospheric pressure at the surface is 90 times Earth’s. Worse yet the air is laced with sulfuric acid mist and the extreme pressure casts an eerie orange hue upon everything at the surface. Venus may have been a torrid planet since creation and the forecast is for the heatwave to continue relentlessly perhaps into eternity.

The planets and moons have bizarre and extreme weather that is dictated by their distance from the Sun, chemical composition, and size. Earth can also be extreme where an alien observing our local weather would be amazed at the mechanics of lake effect storms capable of producing 100”+ snowfalls in only a matter of days. Weather and climate are exciting anywhere in the Solar System where there is an atmosphere and the variety of extreme weather is endless.