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Polar vortex formation in giant-planet atmospheres due to moist convection

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 29 October 2015

This article has been updated


A strong cyclonic vortex has been observed on each of Saturn’s poles, coincident with a local maximum in observed tropospheric temperature1,2,3. Neptune also exhibits a relatively warm, although much more transient4, region on its south pole. Whether similar features exist on Jupiter will be resolved by the 2016 Juno mission. Energetic, small-scale storm-like features that originate from the water-cloud level or lower have been observed on each of the giant planets and attributed to moist convection, suggesting that these storms play a significant role in global heat transfer from the hot interior to space5,6. Nevertheless, the creation and maintenance of Saturn’s polar vortices, and their presence or absence on the other giant planets, are not understood. Here we use simulations with a shallow-water model to show that storm generation, driven by moist convection, can create a strong polar cyclone throughout the depth of a planet’s troposphere. We find that the type of shallow polar flow that occurs on a giant planet can be described by the size ratio of small eddies to the planetary radius and the energy density of its atmosphere due to latent heating from moist convection. We suggest that the observed difference in these parameters between Saturn and Jupiter may preclude a Jovian polar cyclone.

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Figure 1: A schematic of a giant-planet troposphere with moist convection.
Figure 2: A set of regimes that spans likely planetary polar behaviour.
Figure 3: The evolution of a polar cyclone through vortex merger.
Figure 4: ‘Small’ planets with high energy have a significant vortex gradient.

Change history

  • 06 October 2015

    In the version of the Letter originally published the second sign in the energy parameter equation should have been a minus sign. This error did not affect the conclusions of the Letter and it has now been corrected in the online versions.


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The authors benefited from conversations with J. Cho and A. Showman. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (M.E.O’N.) as well as NSF ATM-0850639, NSF AGS-1032244, NSF AGS-1136480, and ONR N00014-14-1-0062.

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K.A.E. proposed and oversaw the study. G.R.F. wrote the initial shallow-water code and advised adaptation by M.E.O’N. M.E.O’N. ran the simulations and interpreted the results. M.E.O’N. wrote the manuscript with editing by K.A.E. and G.R.F.

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Correspondence to Morgan E O’Neill.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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O’Neill, M., Emanuel, K. & Flierl, G. Polar vortex formation in giant-planet atmospheres due to moist convection. Nature Geosci 8, 523–526 (2015).

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