daily californian logo

BERKELEY'S NEWS • JANUARY 17, 2023

Year! Review! Read our 2022 Year in Retrospect Issue!

UC Berkeley researchers find Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is 'flaking' but not dying

article image

PHIL MARCUS | COURTESY

SUPPORT OUR NONPROFIT NEWSROOM

We're an independent student-run newspaper, and need your support to maintain our coverage.

DECEMBER 04, 2019

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot has been shrinking, but research shows that this does not necessarily mean the famous storm is dying.

At November’s annual meeting of the American Physical Society, UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Philip Marcus presented research co-authored by researchers at UC Berkeley, Rice University and UCSF, which provided a new explanation for the recently observed shrinkage of Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot.

The Great Red Spot was first observed by astronomers in the 1600s and has been consistently recorded since the early 1800s. In 1979, astronomers showed that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot had shrunk to half the size it was in the 1800s, prompting concerns over the “health” of the spot, according to Marcus.

This year, amateur astronomers reported observations that the Great Red Spot was “unraveling,” Marcus said, with large “flakes” of the clouds falling away. These observations inspired news stories warning that the Great Red Spot may be in the process of dying.

Marcus and the other researchers who worked on this study were unconvinced, however.

“Just because the clouds change and shrink, doesn’t mean the underlying engine of the vortex is changing or shrinking,” Marcus said.

Using 3D simulations of Jupiter’s vortices, the researchers found that parts of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot flaking off can be explained by the storm’s interactions with other storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The Great Red Spot is an anticyclone, which rotates in the opposite direction of the planet’s spin and is covered in clouds, but Marcus’ previous research has shown that Jupiter’s atmosphere also contains many other unobservable and cloudless cyclones which rotate in the same direction as the planet’s spin. According to Marcus, these cyclones interact with and push the observable anticyclones.

The Great Red Spot has also frequently been observed to eat “small vortices like itself, which circulate around it then are digested,” Marcus said. As the small vortex is digested, it may leave “undigested lumps” on the edge of the Great Red Spot.

The observed flakes coming off of the spot can be explained by these two weather phenomena, according to Marcus. The simulations run by the researchers show that the observed flakes coming off could have been cloud lumps left by the spot eating other anticyclones, which were shattered away from the central vortex when the Great Red Spot came into contact with an unobservable cyclone.

The Great Red Spot has most likely flaked off cloud chunks before, according to Aidi Zhang, a campus doctoral student who contributed to the research, but this atmospheric change went unobserved. Because of the increasing number of amateur astronomers who watch Jupiter every day, people are now able to record more of these small changes in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the (Great Red Spot’s) death are greatly exaggerated, or at least premature,” Marcus said in a statement.

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.
LAST UPDATED

DECEMBER 05, 2019


Related Articles

featured article
Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, or SSL, collaborated with researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, on a satellite scheduled to launch Wednesday.
Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, or SSL, collaborated with researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, on a satellite scheduled to launch Wednesday.
featured article
featured article
Ammonia plumes on Jupiter have affected the planet’s atmosphere and are changing the colors of its bands, according to a recent study by UC Berkeley researchers.
Ammonia plumes on Jupiter have affected the planet’s atmosphere and are changing the colors of its bands, according to a recent study by UC Berkeley researchers.
featured article
featured article
Led by two different teams of scientists and engineers at SSL, the four satellites, which will orbit around Mars and Earth, are a part of two missions to collect information about solar wind and space weather.
Led by two different teams of scientists and engineers at SSL, the four satellites, which will orbit around Mars and Earth, are a part of two missions to collect information about solar wind and space weather.
featured article