The weather is finally changing on Titan


Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

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.

Share

10 comments

  • E Wolf

    “New Cassini images of Titan have spotted the appearance of clouds above the ‘PLANET’S’ northern seas”?

    Thought it was a moon, not a planet

  • Yes it is a moon, but it is as large as some planets, and the scientists who study these kinds of gigantic moons, who are called planetary geologists, often call them planets in conversation.

    I used the word planet here intentionally, because it highlights the absurdity of the present definition of planets imposed by the IAU against the will of most scientists.

  • “. . . planetary geologists, often call them planets in conversation.”

    A. Lincoln: “How many legs has a dog?”

    A. Foil: “Four”

    A. Lincoln: “And if you call his tail a leg?”

    A. Foil: “Why, five, of course.”

    A. Lincoln: “You are incorrect, sir. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.”

  • And conversely, deciding that the two rear legs shouldn’t be called legs because they aren’t exactly the same shape as the front legs doesn’t make them non-legs. They are legs nonetheless.

    The definition of “planet” as determined by the IAU has been strongly panned by most planetary scientists that I’ve spoken to. To them, a planet is any object large enough that gravity forces it into a spherical shape.

  • Robert, we could bandy semantics all day long (and, I think, enjoy the exercise), but in the interests of clarification (the first rule of writing), a planet should be an object large enough to form a spherical shape, and orbit a star as it’s primary.

  • That’s a reasonable definition. It is not the one the IAU imposed. I prefer leaving out the question of where the planet orbits, as we have now found exoplanets that don’t orbit stars. Moreover, many moons are as large if not larger than some star-orbiting planets.

    To me, a moon can be a planet. The key is the object’s size.

  • It appears we are at an impasse. My concern is with function, while yours appears to be with form. Contrary to pop culture, in this case, I don’t believe that size matters. I look forward to a spirited debate, should we meet.

  • Competential

    We really need a new word for what people naturally mean when they say “planet”. Now that phenomena is divided into planets, moons (Titan), dwarf planets (Pluto) and asteroids (Ceres). There are two dimensions here. One is how the object moves. The other is what the object is like.

  • Pzatchok

    I have to say it. I can’t help myself…..

    Global warming did it.

    Ohh I feel so much better now. Thanks.

  • E Wolf

    How about “Captive Planet” for planet-sized moons?

    Regardless – this is a great site – one of my “go to’s”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *