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New Cassini images of Titan have spotted the appearance of clouds above the planet’s northern seas, suggesting the overdue onset of the summer storms that climate models have predicted.
For several years after Cassini’s 2004 arrival in the Saturn system, scientists frequently observed cloud activity near Titan’s south pole, which was experiencing late summer at the time. Clouds continued to be observed as spring came to Titan’s northern hemisphere. But since a huge storm swept across the icy moon’s low latitudes in late 2010, only a few small clouds have been observed anywhere on the icy moon. The lack of cloud activity has surprised researchers, as computer simulations of Titan’s atmospheric circulation predicted that clouds would increase in the north as summer approached, bringing increasingly warm temperatures to the atmosphere there.
“We’re eager to find out if the clouds’ appearance signals the beginning of summer weather patterns, or if it is an isolated occurrence,” said Elizabeth Turtle, a Cassini imaging team associate at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. “Also, how are the clouds related to the seas? Did Cassini just happen catch them over the seas, or do they form there preferentially?”
Any conclusions drawn at this time about the seasonal weather patterns of Titan must be considered highly uncertain, since we only have been observing the planet for a period that only covers one very short portion of its very long 30 year-long year.