Simulation of deep-seated zonal jets and shallow vortices in gas giant atmospheres


Jupiter’s banded cloud layer hosts spots of various sizes. The bands are defined by eastward and westward jet streams and the spots correspond to vortices, predominantly anticyclones, which rotate in the opposite direction of Earth’s cyclonic storms1,2,3. Despite 350 years of observation4, the origin and dynamics of jets and vortices in the atmospheres of giant planets remain debated. Simulations of the shallow weather layer produce both features, but only reproduce observed prograde equatorial flow on Jupiter and Saturn under special conditions5,6. In contrast, deep convection models reproduce equatorial superrotation, but lack coherent vortices7,8,9,10,11. Here we combine both approaches in a three-dimensional simulation where deep convection grades into a stably stratified shallow layer. We find that steady zonal jets are driven by deep convective flows, whereas anticyclonic vortices form where upwelling plumes impinge on the shallow layer. The simulated vortex circulation consists of cool anticyclones shielded by warm downwelling cyclonic rings and filaments, in agreement with observations and theory3,12,13,14,15. We find that the largest vortices form in westward anticyclonic shear flow nearest to the equatorial jet, similar to Saturn’s so-called storm alley16 and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. We conclude that vortices have a deep origin in gas giant atmospheres.

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Figure 1: Conductive stability and total stability ϒ(r, θ, φ, t) of the model.
Figure 2: Zonal velocity and vorticity.
Figure 3: Global and local views of vorticity and velocity.
Figure 4: Dynamics of a large anticyclone.


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Computational resources provided by Compute Canada. Partial support for M.H. provided by an NSERC Discovery grant. Support for T.G. and J.W. provided by the German Science Foundation (DFG) within special priority programme 1488.

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M.H. ran the simulation, wrote the manuscript and created the figures, with editing and assistance on figures by J.W. and T.G. T.G. wrote the computational code with assistance from J.W.

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Correspondence to Moritz Heimpel.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Heimpel, M., Gastine, T. & Wicht, J. Simulation of deep-seated zonal jets and shallow vortices in gas giant atmospheres. Nature Geosci 9, 19–23 (2016).

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