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Saturn’s Hurricane

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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There are several types of weather phenomena. A phenomenon is an observable fact or occurrence that is unusual and can be explained scientifically. The types of weather phenomena include fog, heat waves, cold waves, tornadoes, thunderstorms, winter storms, and different types of cyclones.

A cyclone is a system of winds rotating inward to an area of low atmospheric pressure. Atmospheric pressure is the amount of force exerted over a surface area or the pressure exerted by the weight of the atmosphere.

One interesting type of cyclone is a hurricane. A hurricane is a strong tropical revolving storm. It has a Beaufort scale of force 12 or higher. The Beaufort scale is an empirical measure for the intensity of the wind based mainly on the state of the sea or wave conditions. In the northern hemisphere, hurricanes revolve in a counterclockwise direction. In the southern hemisphere, they revolve clockwise and are known as typhoons.

The hurricane is also nature’s heat engine. It is a device that transfers heat from a place of high temperature to a place of lower temperature and does mechanical work in the process. It is also a type of machine that converts a portion of the thermal energy delivered to it (at high temperature) to work. It converts heat energy into mechanical energy. Heat energy is a form of energy that is transferred by the difference in temperature. It is the total kinetic energy or the capacity to increase the activity of something and thereby increase its temperature. Mechanical energy is the energy of motion used to perform work. Examples of heat engines in our everyday world are refrigerators, steam engines, and heat pumps.

There are four main ingredients to creating a hurricane. These are warm water, cooler air temperature, wind, and location. First, there has to be sufficient water vapor in the middle of the troposphere. Second, the sea surface temperature must be at least -26.50 C and a vertical temperature profile that cools with height. This supports thunderstorm activity. Third, the values of vertical wind shear are low from the surface to the upper troposphere. Fourth, in regards to location, there must be sufficient distance from the equator for the coriolis force to be significant.

The coriolis force is a force exerted on a parcel of air (or any moving body) due to the rotation of the earth. It causes freely moving masses such as air and water currents to be diverted from straight linear motion. An example of the coriolis effect that you can try at home is the following: Draw a straight line with a pencil from the center of a spinning record to the outside of the record. You will notice the line begin to spiral as the record spins.

In short, a hurricane is caused by low windshear, very moist humidity, the sea temperature is around 26.50 degrees celsius, and the location of the genesis of the hurricane is anywhere from 50 to 300 degrees north latitude.

This type of weather phenomena is not only experienced on Earth but is now being experienced on another planet. Recently, it has been reported that Saturn has been enduring a strong hurricane. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and is the second largest in our solar system. The length of day on Saturn is about ten and a half hours and it is about 95 times the mass of the Earth. It is made up mainly of hydrogen and helium. It has the lowest density of the planets in our solar system. Its unique characteristic are its rings.

The hurricane on Saturn was detected in 2004 while Saturn was in its northern winter. Then in 2009, as spring began on Saturn, Cassini was able to give us more insight. Now , we are getting a better view currently. The image to this article was taken on November 27th.

So what is so different about Saturn’s hurricane? On Earth, Hurricanes require warm ocean water. On Saturn, hurricanes require atmospheric water vapor. The speed of Saturn’s hurricane is 330 mph, while a level 5 hurricane on Earth is at 156 mph.

Unlike hurricanes on Earth, which tend to drift northward as our planet rotates, Saturn’s hurricane swirls inside a mysterious, six-sided vortex. This vortex has been measured to be about 1,250 miles wide and possibly could be the length of half of the United States . A vortex is a spinning, often turbulent, flow of fluid or a vertical axis of extremely low pressure around which winds rotate.

The hurricane on Saturn can serve as a two-fold purpose. First, it can be a natural lab for us to gain a better understanding of the behavior and traits of a hurricane. Second, it can help us understand Saturn’s physical behavior better.

If you wish to learn more about hurricanes, visit: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/outreach/games/canelab.htm or http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/environment/HURRICANE_RECIPE.html

To view pictures of the Hurricane on Saturn , go to: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/whycassini/cassini20130429.html

Images: Sandy Hurricane: Goes Satellite/EarthObservatory.NASA.Gov; Saturn Hurricane: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

Joel Taylor About the Author: Joel Taylor grew up in Siskiyou County, California. He attended Yreka High School in Yreka, California. After that, he attended College of the Siskiyous in Weed, California and then transferred to Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon where he graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Physics. Since then, he has had his own tutoring and research company. He has also worked at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Joel is also a member of the American Physical Society and American Institute of Physics. Follow on Twitter @Joel_a_taylor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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