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A chaotic long-lived vortex at the southern pole of Venus


Polar vortices are common in the atmospheres of rapidly rotating planets1,2,3,4. On Earth and Mars, vortices are generated by surface temperature gradients and their strength is modulated by the seasonal insolation cycle1,2,3. Slowly rotating Venus lacks pronounced seasonal forcing, but vortices are known to occur at both poles, in an atmosphere that rotates faster than the planet itself5,6,7,8. Here we report observations of cloud motions at altitudes of 42 and 63 km above Venus’s south pole using infrared images from the VIRTIS instrument onboard the Venus Express spacecraft. We find that the south polar vortex is a long-lived but unpredictable feature. Within the two cloud layers sampled, the centres of rotation of the vortex are rarely aligned vertically and both wander erratically around the pole with velocities of up to 16 m s−1. At the two horizontal levels, the observed cloud morphologies do not correlate with the vorticity of the wind field and change continuously, and vertical and meridional wind shears are also highly variable. We conclude that Venus’s south polar vortex is a continuously evolving structure that is at least 20 km high, extending through a quasi-convective turbulent region.

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Figure 1: Polar projections of vortex morphology as observed at infrared wavelengths and zonal wind velocities.
Figure 2: Local relative vorticity maps and streamlines.
Figure 3: Vorticity map of the upper cloud layer on orbit 475 superimposed over vortex morphology (as seen in Fig. 1e).
Figure 4: Vortex’s erratic wandering.


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We wish to thank Y. J. Lee and S. Tellmann for providing VeRa data. We gratefully acknowledge the work of the entire Venus Express team that allowed these data to be obtained. We wish to thank ESA for supporting the Venus Express mission, ASI (by the contract I/050/10/0), CNES and the other national space agencies supporting the VIRTIS instrument onboard. J.P. acknowledges support from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT, grant reference: SFRH/BPD/63036/2009). This work was supported by the Spanish MICIIN project AYA2009-10701 and AYA2012-36666 with FEDER support, Grupos Gobierno Vasco IT-464-07 and UPV/EHU UFI11/55.

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I.G-L. performed the image selection and wind measurements. R.H. designed the measurement software. A.S-L. coordinated this research and with J.P. made theoretical interpretations. P.D. and G.P. have coordinated the observations as Principal Investigators of VIRTIS. All the authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to I. Garate-Lopez.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Garate-Lopez, I., Hueso, R., Sánchez-Lavega, A. et al. A chaotic long-lived vortex at the southern pole of Venus. Nature Geosci 6, 254–257 (2013).

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