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Methane storms on Saturn's moon Titan

Abstract

The presence of dry fluvial river channels and the intense cloud activity in the south pole of Titan over the past few years1,2,3 suggest the presence of methane rain. The nitrogen atmosphere of Titan therefore appears to support a methane meteorological cycle that sculptures the surface and controls its properties1,4. Titan and Earth are the only worlds in the Solar System where rain reaches the surface, although the atmospheric cycles of water and methane are expected to be very different5. Here we report three-dimensional dynamical calculations showing that severe methane convective storms accompanied by intense precipitation may occur in Titan under the right environmental conditions. The strongest storms grow when the methane relative humidity in the middle troposphere is above 80 per cent, producing updrafts with maximum velocities of 20 m s-1, able to reach altitudes of 30 km before dissipating in 5–8 h. Raindrops of 1–5 mm in radius produce precipitation rainfalls on the surface as high as 110 kg m-2 and are comparable to flash flood events on Earth6.

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Figure 1: Observations and numerical simulation of convective clouds in Titan.
Figure 2: Particle size evolution and rain in a Titan thunderstorm.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the MCYT Plan Nacional de Astronomía y Astrofísica, Grupos UPV and Fondos FEDER. R.H. was supported by the “Ramón y Cajal” programme. The SGI/IZO-SGIker UPV/EHU is gratefully acknowledged for allocation of computational resources.

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Correspondence to R. Hueso or A. Sánchez-Lavega.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Notes

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1 and 2 and Supplementary Table 1. Supplementary Figure 1 details methane molar mixing and saturation ratio profiles used in the simulations. Supplementary Figure 2 details the merger of two nearby convective cells triggered simultaneously. Supplementary Table 1 shows Additional simulations and results of Titan’s convective clouds. (DOC 967 kb)

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Hueso, R., Sánchez-Lavega, A. Methane storms on Saturn's moon Titan. Nature 442, 428–431 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04933

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