Next time you’re stuck in traffic because of a massive storm, be glad you’re not driving across Jupiter. The blasting winds and searing heat of its Great Red Spot are so extreme they would trigger the longest emergency weather alert ever to take over your car radio.
What looks like an enormous mole on the face of the Gas Giant is actually an anticyclonic storm that that has been seething and swirling for 300 years. Meaning, those winds loud enough to be mistaken for werewolves in space (cue “wooooo” sound effects) keep howling with unearthly fury because the angry red blob is in a high-pressure zone. As for temps that make even a summer without AC look like a vacation in your supermarket’s freezer section, astronomers think they’re finally figured out the triggers behind the Red Spot’s infernal temper — and temperatures.
Jupiter is unexpectedly scorching for a planet hundreds of millions of miles away from the sun. Not enough rays reach its atmosphere to explain the sweltering heat. Super-hot aurorae crackle with electrical storms on either pole, but the Coriolis effect, which is the universal default setting for the path of an object set in motion above a rotating surface to curve and therefore stay put, makes it impossible for fingers of lightning to extend their reach. Scientists like James O’Donoghue of Boston University have determined the truth to be skin-deep, or in this case atmosphere-deep.
“This warmth is a discrepancy that has haunted everyone for 50 years now,” O’Donoghue says.
So has its striking resemblance to the Eye of Sauron under infrared light, but that's a different universe. O'Donoghue exposed the source of the heat using the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility at Mauna Kea Observatory. Spectrometer analysis of the light reflected by Jupiter put its werewolf winds under the microscope and pointed to atmospheric turbulence as the culprit for its unfathomable heat. He and his team team ventured to find out exactly how high temperatures in this red-hot whirlpool can get by seeking out H3+, a positively charged triatomic hydrogen molecule that exists in the upper atmospheres of the behemoth gas planets in our galaxy. The spectrometer was also able to reveal that it is actually hundreds of degrees hotter above the storm — meaning the red storm’s temper is boiling below — and the unprecedented finding that Jupiter’s upper and mid-atmosphere have a psychic connection. Alright, not really, but one is able to affect the other and vice versa.
This phenomenon isn’t so different from the energy of earthly disasters such as volcanoes, tsunami and earthquakes generating intense heat When the Great Red Spot throws a tantrum, its lycanthropic writhing and moaning instigate violent gas flows whose by-products are high-frequency gravity and sound waves. These smash into each other so violently they release explosive bursts of energy.
“It’s not thunder heating, which I would have loved to be able to say,” O’Donoghue says. “It’s kind of the same as sound waves, but I don’t think thunder is a good analogy, because we don’t know about the lightning.”
While there haven’t been any epic displays of lightning at the Red Spot yet, scientists aren’t counting out the possibility of fireworks somewhere in its poisonous ruby depths.