Venus is a slowly rotating planet with a thick atmosphere (~9.2 MPa at the surface). Ground- and satellite-based observations have shown atmospheric superrotation (atmospheric rotation much faster than solid surface rotation), global-scale cloud patterns (e.g., Y-shaped and bow-shaped structures), and polar vortices (polar hot dipole and fine structures). The Venusian atmospheric circulation, controlled by the planet’s radiative forcing and astronomical parameters, is quite different from the earth’s. As the meteorological data have been stored, understanding of the atmospheric circulation has been gradually enriched with the help of theories of geophysical fluid dynamics and meteorology.
In the cloud layer far from the surface (49–70 km altitude), superrotational flows (east-to-west zonal winds) exceeding 100 m/s and meridional (equator-to-pole) flows have been observed along with planetary-scale brightness variations unique to Venus. The fully developed superrotation, which is ~60 times faster than the planetary rotation, is maintained by meridional circulation and waves. For the planetary-scale variations, slow-traveling waves with stationary and solar-locked structures and fast-traveling waves with phase velocities of around the superroational wind speeds are dominant in the cloud layer. Thermal tides, Rossby waves, Kelvin waves, and gravity waves play important roles in mechanisms for maintaining fast atmospheric rotation. In the lower atmosphere below the cloud layer, the atmospheric circulation is still unknown because of the lack of global observations. In addition to the limited observations, the atmospheric modeling contributes to deep understanding of the atmospheric circulation system. Recent general circulation models have well simulated the dynamical and thermal structures of Venus’s atmosphere, though there remain outstanding issues.
Karen Aplin and Georg Fischer
Electricity occurs in atmospheres across the Solar System planets and beyond, spanning spectacular lightning displays in clouds of water or dust, to more subtle effects of charge and electric fields. On Earth, lightning is likely to have existed for a long time, on the basis of evidence from fossilized lightning strikes in ancient rocks, but observations of planetary lightning are necessarily much more recent. The generation and observations of lightning and other atmospheric electrical processes, both from within-atmosphere measurements, and spacecraft remote sensing, can be readily studied using a comparative planetology approach, with the Earth as a model.
All atmospheres contain charged molecules, electrons, and/or molecular clusters created by ionization from cosmic rays and other processes, which may affect an atmosphere’s energy balance both through aerosol and cloud formation and direct absorption of radiation. Several planets are anticipated to host a “global electric circuit” by analogy with the circuit occurring on the Earth, where thunderstorms drive the current of ions or electrons through weakly conductive parts of the atmosphere. This current flow may further modulate an atmosphere’s radiative properties through cloud and aerosol effects.
Lightning could potentially have implications for life through its effects on atmospheric chemistry and particle transport. It has been observed on many of the Solar System planets (Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), and it may also be present on Venus and Mars. On Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, lightning is thought to be generated in deep water and ice clouds, but discharges can be generated in dust, as for terrestrial volcanic lightning, and on Mars. Other, less well-understood mechanisms causing discharges in non-water clouds also seem likely. The discovery of thousands of exoplanets has recently led to a range of further exotic possibilities for atmospheric electricity, though lightning detection beyond our Solar System remains a technical challenge to be solved.
Anni Määttänen and Franck Montmessin
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Although resembling an extremely dry desert, planet Mars hosts clouds in its atmosphere. Every day somewhere on the planet a part of the tiny amount of water vapor held by the atmosphere can condense as ice crystals to form cirrus-type clouds. The existence of water ice clouds has been known for a long time, and they have been studied for decades, leading to the establishment of a well-known climatology and understanding of their formation and properties. Despite their thinness, they have a clear impact on the atmospheric temperatures, thus affecting the Martian climate.
Another, more exotic type of clouds forms as well on Mars. The atmospheric temperatures can plunge to such frigid values that the major gaseous component of the atmosphere, CO2, condenses as ice crystals. These clouds form in the cold polar night where they also contribute to the formation of the CO2 ice polar cap, and also in the mesosphere at very high altitudes, near the edge of space, analogously to the noctilucent clouds on Earth. The mesospheric clouds are a fairly recent discovery and have put our understanding of the Martian atmosphere to a test.
On Mars, cloud crystals form on ice nuclei, mostly provided by the omnipresent dust. Thus, the clouds link the three major climatic cycles: those of the two major volatiles, H2O and CO2; and that of dust, which is a major climatic agent itself.
Matthew R. Balme
Dust devils are rotating columns or cones of air, loaded with dust and other fine particles, that are most often found in arid or desert areas. They are common on both Mars and Earth, despite Mars’ very thin atmosphere. The smallest and least intense dust devils might last only a few 10s of seconds and be just a meters or two across. The largest dust devils can persist for hours and are intensely swirling columns of dust with “skirts” of sand at their base, 10s or more meters in diameter and hundreds of meters high; even larger examples have been seen on Mars. Dust devils on Earth have been documented for thousands of years, but scientific observations really began in the early 20th century, culminating in a period of intense research in the 1960s. The discovery of dust devils on Mars was made using data from the NASA Viking lander and orbiter missions in the late 1970s and early 1980s and stimulated a renewed scientific interest in dust devils. Observations from subsequent lander, rover, and orbital missions show that Martian dust devils are common but heterogeneously distributed in space and time and have a significant effect on surface albedo (often leaving “tracks” on the surface) but do not appear to be triggers of global or major dust storms. An aspiration of future research is to synthesize observations and detailed models of dust devils to estimate more accurately their role in dust lifting at both local and global scales, both on Earth and on Mars.
Timothy E. Dowling
Jet streams, “jets” for short, are remarkably coherent streams of air found in every major atmosphere. They have a profound effect on a planet’s global circulation and have been an enigma since the belts and zones of Jupiter were discovered in the 1600s. Collaborations between observers, experimentalists, computer modelers, and applied mathematicians seek to understand what processes affect jet size, strength, direction, shear stability, and predictability. Key challenges include nonlinearity, nonintuitive wave physics, nonconstant-coefficient differential equations, and the many nondimensional numbers that arise from the competing physical processes that affect jets, including gravity, pressure gradients, Coriolis accelerations, and turbulence. Fortunately, the solar system provides many examples of jets, and both laboratory and computer simulations allow for carefully controlled experiments. Jet research is multidisciplinary but is united by a common language, the conservation of potential vorticity (PV), which is an all-in-one conservation law that combines the conservation laws of mass, momentum, and thermal energy into a single expression. The leading theories of how jets emerge out of turbulence, and why they are invariably zonal (east-west orientated), reveal the importance of vorticity waves that owe their existence to conservation of PV.
Jets are observed to naturally group into equatorial, midlatitude, and polar types. Earth and Uranus have weakly retrograde equatorial jets, but most planets exhibit strongly prograde (superrotating) equatorial jets, which require eddies to transport momentum up-gradient in a manner that is not obvious but is beginning to be understood. Jupiter and Saturn exhibit multiple alternating jets spanning their midlatitudes, with deep roots that connect to their interior circulations. Polar jets universally exhibit an impressive inhibition of meridional (north-south) mixing, and the seasonal nature of the polar jets on Earth, Mars, and Titan contrasts with the permanence of those on the giant planets, including Saturn’s beautiful north-polar hexagon. Intriguingly, jets in atmospheres have strong analogies with jets in nonneutral plasmas, with practical benefits to both disciplines.
Angela M. Zalucha and Jason Cook
In addition to ground-based observations beginning in the 1970s, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Triton in 1989, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015. Prior to the flyby of New Horizons, Pluto and Triton were termed “sister worlds” due to what appeared to be a high degree of similarity in solid-body density, surface ices, diameter, and surface pressures. Despite being small, cold, icy bodies, both Pluto and Triton have been found to have atmospheres that behave as a continuous fluid up to 300 km altitude above the surface and thereby have a defined temperature, surface pressure, and global general circulation (wind). The primary constituent of these atmospheres is molecular nitrogen, with methane and carbon monoxide comprising the largest abundances of trace gases. The surface pressure as measured in the 2010s on both worlds is of the order of 10 microbars (1 Pa = 10 µbar), for these exotic atmospheres exchange mass between sublimation of surface ice and deposition of nitrogen over the course of each body’s year. Ground-based stellar occultation measurements observed a dramatic change in surface pressure, which one study found was as much as a factor of two increase between 1988 and 2003 on Pluto, presumably due to Pluto’s seasonal volatile cycle. Voyager 2 observed plumes and surface “streaks” on Triton, while New Horizons observed dunes (indicating wind speeds of 1–10 m s−1) as well as streaks, evidently indicating the presence of surface and near-surface winds.
While wind velocity aloft has not been directly measured on Pluto or Triton, 3-D general circulation modeling studies of both worlds have shown zonal (east–west) wind speeds of the order of 10 m/s, meridional (north–south) wind speeds of the order of 1 m/s, and extremely weak vertical wind speeds.
In 2015, New Horizons showed that Pluto and Triton were much more different than previously thought. New Horizons uncovered many spectacular views of Pluto’s atmosphere. First, while hydrocarbon haze was observed on Triton, Pluto had multiple, very distinct stratified haze layers bearing a similar appearance to the layers of an onion. Second, Pluto’s surface elevation was found to be largely inhomogeneous (in contrast to Triton) in the form of a large depression (Sputnik Planitia). Third, the characteristics of the surface markings on Pluto were found to be different than the streaks observed on Triton, which has implications for surface wind patterns.
Further major discoveries made by New Horizons included evidence for many hydrocarbon species in trace concentrations, a lower than expected surface pressure, which could previously only be indirectly ascertained from ground-based observations, and a higher mixing ratio of methane at higher altitudes than at lower due to gravitational diffusive separation. Using radio occultation experiments (not conducted by Voyager 2 at Triton), New Horizons confirmed the existence of a stratosphere (temperature increasing with height) extending to 25 km altitude at both the entry and exit locations. The entry location had a shallow troposphere (temperature decreasing with height) extending to 3.5 km altitude above the surface, while the exit location did not.