Scijinks - Weather Adventures

Weather Adventures
NOAA NASA

How's the weather on other planets?

Power and telephone cables weighed down by a recent ice storm.

Power and telephone lines sag after a heavy ice storm on planet Earth.

Earth has dreadful weather.

Sometimes winds rip the roofs off houses or pick up cars and drop them miles away. In some places it rains so hard you could almost drown by looking up at the sky. There are deserts where it gets hot enough to fry eggs on a rock . . . in other locales, it can be cold enough to freeze the tears on your eyelashes.

Is there someplace else we could go to get away from this wild Earth weather?

Weather Tour of the Solar System

Travel brochure for Venus, Tropical Paradise

The hottest day that we know of on Earth was July 10, 1913. On that day, Death Valley, California, reached 134º F. If that isn't hot enough for you, try Venus. The thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide on Venus turns it into a greenhouse (but without the happy plants). The atmosphere holds in the Sun’s heat and never lets the planet cool off, even at night. Surface temperatures are almost 900º F—hot enough to melt lead!

As a vacation spot, Venus is definitely out.

So, where shall we go to cool off?

A Refreshing Mars Stop

Very cold-looking astronaut

How about Mars? It’s farther from the Sun than Earth is, and the air is very thin. So it will be cool and refreshing like on a mountain top, right?

Wrong!

Yes, it’s cool. The daytime, summer temperatures get only up to about 80º F. But at night, the temperature can drop to almost -200º F (that’s 200º below zero!). It actually did get almost as cold as Mars once on Earth: Vostok, Antarctica, recorded a low of -129 º F on July 21, 1983. But on Mars, this sort of weather occurs all the time, swinging from warmest to coldest in one day!

Cartoon of a martian dust devil

Why such wild swings? The air (if you could call it that) on Mars is made mostly of carbon dioxide. But the air is so thin (less than 1/100th as thick as Earth’s air) that the heat from the daytime Sun escapes into space at night. This thin air can still kick up a huge dust storm. The whole planet can be wrapped in clouds of fine Martian dust for weeks at a time. In calmer times, whirly winds stir up the fine soil, making “dust devils” that dance across the Martian surface.

So, Mars’ weather isn’t much fun either.

Skating Anyone?

Europa

If you’re going to be cold anyway, you can at least go somewhere with great winter sporting opportunities. If you ice skate, how about Europa? Europa is one of the four largest moons of Jupiter. It’s a little smaller than Earth’s Moon. But it’s covered in ice—smooth ice! It’s gravity is only about 1/8th of Earth’s, so imagine the height you could get on a triple axel! Unfortunately, with Europa temperatures around -328º F, you would be frozen hard as a rock in a nanosecond.

Brrrr! Our search for better weather in the solar system isn’t looking promising.

A Long Hurricane Season

Jupiter's Red Spot

Perhaps you've always wondered what it would be like to be inside a hurricane. On Earth, the strongest ever recorded hurricane winds blew at around 200 miles per hour. Well, Jupiter's Great Red Spot would give you a whirlwind ride like you would never find on Earth. Counterclockwise winds of about 250 miles per hour blow clouds high in Jupiter's atmosphere into a beautiful, swirling pattern. The Red Spot could swallow up two whole Earths. This storm has been raging for at least 300 years!

But even 250 miles per hour is a gentle breeze compared to our next stop.

Breezy - But Beautiful!

Saturn

Saturn is so beautiful from Earth, even through a small telescope, with its lovely rings and bands of clouds. Those clouds are moving at different speeds—of around 1,100 miles per hour! Some blow eastward, some blow westward. Oh, and it’s cold on Saturn too, although not quite as cold as Europa. Then there’s the small problem that, Like Jupiter, it’s a gas giant, so there’s no solid ground to stand upon.

Well, beauty isn’t everything.

Land o' Lakes

Titan's atmosphere hides the lovely lakes on its surface.

The thick atmosphere hides the lovely lakes on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan.

Now Saturn’s moon Titan, at first glance, looks promising. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system, after Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Titan is covered in thick, hazy clouds. So, does it rain on Titan? Let’s dive under the clouds and see. Oh, look—lakes! Liquid lakes! Does that mean it’s warm enough for water to be a liquid? Alas, no. The lakes are filled not with water, but with liquid methane or ethane.

Diagram of Titan hydrological cycle.

Titan may have a "methane cycle" (or "ethane cycle") like Earth's water cycle.

We have methane here on Earth too, but as a gas—sometimes known as marsh gas. To “freeze” into a liquid and rain out of the clouds on Titan, the methane must be colder than -296.5º F. Oops! Clouds, rain, and pretty lakes are no guarantee of a friendly, Earth-like environment.

So let’s keep going.

The Windiest

Neptune Uranus

We’ll just skip methane-blue Uranus, because it’s another really windy gas giant. Same with Neptune, except even more X-treme! Neptune’s winds are the fastest in the solar system, reaching 1,600 miles per hour! Neptune has been known to have giant, spinning storms that could swallow the whole Earth.

The Iciest

A cartoon of one of Triton's Ice Volcanos

One of Neptune’s moons, Triton, might be worth checking out. At least it’s solid and it has an atmosphere—barely. And its atmosphere even has something in common with Earth’s. It is mostly nitrogen. The only other body with a mostly nitrogen atmosphere is Saturn’s moon Titan. Triton’s unique ice volcanoes might make it a fascinating tourist stop. However, with a surface temperature of -391º F, this moon is one of the coldest objects in the solar system!

Let's Go Home!

GOES image of nearly half the Earth.

Well, Earth is starting to look like an ideal vacation spot, in spite of its “wild weather.” The most important thing in dealing with Earth’s extremes is to be prepared.

Part of being prepared is knowing when bad weather is on the way. That's one of the main jobs of the GOES, and the next generation of such satellites, called GOES-R. GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite.. The U.S. has two of these satellites on duty—one watching over the Atlantic Ocean and eastern U.S. and the other watching over the Pacific Ocean and western U.S. Their geostationary orbits are very high—22,300 miles high—right above the equator. As Earth turns on its axis, the satellites seem to hover over the same spot on Earth all the time. Really, the satellites are making one Earth orbit per day.

A rendering of GOES orbiting the Earth

The GOES were developed by NASA, but are operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA is also in charge of the National Weather Service. They let people know what kind of storms or other weather is coming their way.

GOES and GOES-R help with other things as well. They have instruments to study the Sun, so we know when bad "space weather" is on the way too. These satellites are also part of a world-wide search and rescue system for hikers, planes, and boats when they are lost or in trouble.

A rendering of the GOES-R spacecraft

NOAA also has the POES, which stands for Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites. These satellites are at a much lower altitude than the GOES, passing over the North and South Poles on every orbit, while earth rotates below. Thus the POES observe the whole planet. The information they collect is used for long-term weather forecasting and climate change studies.

No, Earth isn’t the only planet with weather. But it’s by far got the best.