Monster Thunderstorm Erupts, Churns Atmosphere for Years

By Tom Yulsman | September 5, 2013 12:39 am

A NASA spacecraft captured this false-color image of a gargantuan thunderstorm that has persisted since 2010. (Image: NASA)

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.)

Two views of Saturn acquired by the Cassini spacecraft. The first is a natural color image showing much of the planet, with a superstorm girdling the northern hemisphere. The inset  is a close-up infra-red image with the colors indicative of details of different materials dredged up by the storm from lower in the atmosphere, including ammonia and water ice. Both are from 2011. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/University of Arizona/University of Wisconsin)

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.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Atmosphere, select, Top Posts
  • Odin Matanguihan

    Would the lightning be 20 times longer too?

    • Tom Yulsman

      Good question. I don’t know the answer. But I’ll try to find out.

    • Timothy Lang

      I doubt the spacecraft have the instrumentation to measure that. However, maximum lightning channel length often increases with storm size on Earth.

      • Odin Matanguihan

        I think I’ll just fly a kite in that storm. (with a key in the middle)



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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