This is no ordinary thunderstorm.
For one thing, it encircles the entire northern hemisphere of the planet, spanning an astonishing distance of 190,000 miles.
For another, it covers 1.5 billion square miles.
Okay, you’ve probably figured out already, if not right away, that this badass superstorm poses no risk to Earthlings…
It is, in fact, the largest and most intense storm ever seen on Saturn by either the Voyager or Cassini spacecraft. In the images above, acquired by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2011, the various colors are indicative of clouds at different altitudes within Saturn’s atmosphere. Blues show the very highest and wispiest clouds, followed by thicker ones in yellow and white. (For full details of what all the colors signify, go here.)
Now, scientists have just published a paper in the journal Icarus with new details about the storm, including the fact that it has managed to pull water water vapor up from more than 100 miles down in Saturn’s atmosphere. And as that water vapor has been sucked upward, it has cooled and frozen, forming water ice particles coated by ammonia and ammonia compounds.
This marks the first time, in fact, that water ice has been detected on the giant ringed planet.
I’m fascinated that while Earth and Saturn are so profoundly different (in size, composition, structure and countless other ways), they nonetheless feature similar atmospheric phenomena, albeit at very different scales. As NASA put it in a recent press release about the new findings:
In understanding the dynamics of this Saturn storm, researchers realized that it worked like the much smaller convective storms on Earth, where air and water vapor are pushed high into the atmosphere, resulting in the towering, billowing clouds of a thunderstorm. The towering clouds in Saturn storms of this type, however, were 10 to 20 times taller and covered a much bigger area. They are also far more violent than an Earth storm, with models predicting vertical winds of more than about 300 mph (500 kilometers per hour) for these rare giant storms.
Storms on both planets also produce lightning. That’s pretty darn cool.