Swirly storms near the North Pole will be a fine spectacle
(Image: Yagi Studio/Getty)

Astrophile: Icy Titan spawns tropical cyclones

17:42 22 February 2013 by Jeff Hecht

Astrophile is our weekly column on curious cosmic objects, from the solar system to the far reaches of the multiverse

Object: Mini-hurricanes of methane rain
Location: North Pole of Saturn’s moon Titan

With a maximum surface temperature of -180 °C, Saturn’s icy moon Titan is no tropical paradise, at least by earthly standards. But it may still have tropical cyclones, and at what sounds like the unlikeliest of places – near its north pole.

These mini-hurricanes have never been observed anywhere but Earth. If they exist on Titan, that would add to a growing list of features that the distant moon shares with our planet, from lakes, hills, caves and sand dunes to fog, mist, smoggy haze and rain clouds.

Though cyclones – a large family of storms in which winds spiral inward to a low-pressure zone, such as the eye of a hurricane or tornado – have been glimpsed on Mars and Saturn, a tropical cyclone is a special case that is driven by the heat of evaporation from a warm sea. These storms involve a lot of rain as well as gale-force winds, and have not been glimpsed anywhere but Earth.

As Titan is the only body in the solar system apart from Earth known to have liquid on its surface and, therefore, rain (Titan is so cold that its rain is in the form of liquid methane, not water), Tetsuya Tokano of the University of Cologne in Germany decided to calculate what it would take for Titan to have its own mini-hurricanes.

Read more: Astrophile: Icy Titan spawns tropical cyclones – space – 22 February 2013 – New Scientist.

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