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Jupiter has 320-MPH Hurricane Winds Along Its Equator, JWST Finds

Jupiter makes our hurricanes look like gentle breezes and we didn't even know it was there.

By Cassidy Ward

Hurricanes forming in the Pacific don’t often strike the west coast of the United States. A combination of water temperature and the rotation of the Earth tend to push storms deeper into the Pacific but every so often they turn toward land. In the sci-fi survival flick Sharknado, one such storm floods Los Angeles with shark-infested storm waters. The later emergence of three tornadoes transforms the scene into a rare meteorological event known only as the titular sharknado.

Thank Crom sharks haven’t figured out how to hitch a ride on cyclones in real life, but every so often, the planet starts feeling a little antsy, has a temper tantrum, and we just have to endure it and pick up the pieces. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis are the price we pay for a world with liquid water, plate tectonics, and breathable air. Most of the time we know what to expect from the weather, but sometimes things get weird. That’s especially true on a world like Jupiter, where astronomers recently discovered a previously unseen belt of fast-moving hurricane winds along Jupiter’s equator.

JWST Finds Previously Unseen Hurricane Belt on Jupiter

In July of 2022, shortly after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrived at Earth’s L2 Lagrange point –– a gravitationally stable location on the other side of the Moon –– astronomers turned the fledgling telescope toward Jupiter and took a series of photographs. The images were captured 10 hours apart (the length of a day on Jupiter) so they could get the same side of Jupiter in each image. Every snapshot used a different filter, specialized for getting data from different altitudes in Jupiter’s dense atmosphere, according to NASA.

RELATED: How Long is a Day on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune?

JWST isn’t our first super telescope spying on the cosmos from orbit, but it is our most advanced, and it’s particularly good at peering into the infrared or near-infrared which is more apparent at higher altitudes on Jupiter. Analyzing data from the telescope's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), researchers identified a band of fast-moving air no one had ever spotted before.

A photo of mage of Jupiter from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera)

Hovering over Jupiter's equator, roughly 20 miles above the cloud tops, researchers found a massive stretch of hurricane winds stretching roughly 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) wide. On Earth, a category 5 hurricane (the top of the Earthly scale) has sustained winds moving 252 kilometers per hour (157 miles per hour). Jupiter’s equatorial hurricane belt more than doubles those speeds.

By comparing the winds at the top of the atmosphere with more easily visible winds farther down, scientists were able to clock the speed of the high-flying hurricane belt. They measured sustained wind speeds of roughly 515 kilometers per hour (320 miles per hour). That’s fast enough to wreck Los Angeles or anyplace else with or without sharks.

Hear the story behind the onscreen disaster phenomenon in Sharknado: Feeding Frenzy, streaming now on Peacock.