Earth Matters

Different Planets, Similar Patterns

January 31st, 2022 by Kathryn Hansen

Compared to Earth, the planet Jupiter is about 11 times larger in circumference, 5 times farther from the Sun, 4 times colder, and it rotates 2.5 times faster. Based on the numbers, this gas giant wouldn’t seem to have much in common with our planet. But spend a moment looking at these detailed images of vortices in Earth’s oceans and in the atmosphere on Jupiter. You might struggle to tell the difference.

In 2019 we published this side-by-side comparison of Jupiter and Earth. The image of Jupiter (left) shows ammonia-rich clouds swirling in the outermost layers of the planet’s atmosphere. The eddies trace disturbances caused by the planet’s fast rotation and by high temperatures deeper in the atmosphere. The image of Earth (right) shows a green phytoplankton bloom tracing the edges of a vortex in the Baltic Sea. Turbulent processes in the oceans are important for moving heat, carbon, and nutrients around the planet.

Scientists are paying attention to the similarities. Lia Siegelman, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, became interested in NASA’s Juno mission when images of Jupiter reminded her of the turbulent oceans she was studying on Earth. She presented the following examples at the December 2021 meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Notice how the swirls and vortices in the Norwegian Sea (top-left) and Baltic Sea (bottom-left) resemble vortices in Jupiter’s atmosphere (top- and bottom-right). Siegelman noted that although the scales are different–the vortex on Jupiter is about ten times larger than the one in the Baltic–they are generated by the same sort of fluid dynamics.

By studying these naturally emerging patterns, scientists are learning more about atmospheric processes on Jupiter. Someday, such comparisons might even tell us something new about our home planet.

The Juno spacecraft, which has been gathering data on the gas giant since July 2016, completed its 38th close pass by Jupiter in November 2021. You can find more information about the Juno mission here and here

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