On Jupiter, Cold Air Rises?

In last week’s edition of Sciency Words, we covered the belts and zones of Jupiter’s atmosphere. As a brief summary:

  • Zones are the light colored stripes.
  • Belts are the darker, ruddy orange stripes.

While researching that post, something struck me as odd. The cooler clouds of zones rise above the warmer clouds of belts. That made no sense to me. Cold air rises? Warm air sinks? Isn’t that the opposite of what’s supposed to happen?

But there’s more to these clouds than temperature alone. We also have to consider air pressure.

Just as increasing the pressure of a gas can make it hotter, decreasing the pressure can make it cooler. So rather than picturing cool air masses somehow rising, picture rising air masses cooling off due to decreasing atmospheric pressure. Such a situation can be thermodynamically stable, especially when dealing with the extreme altitudes associated with planetary atmospheres.

Still sound crazy? Well, this phenomenon isn’t unique to Jupiter. Similar changes in air pressure occur here on Earth, which is why mountaintops get so cold while the fields and valleys below stay warm.

In many ways, Jupiter is a mysterious planet. We don’t fully understand what causes its enormous cyclonic and anticyclonic storms, nor do we fully understand what’s going on in the deeper layers of the planet’s interior. We’re not even sure why the Great Red Spot looks red.

But Jupiter isn’t that mysterious. Some things which might seem odd at first glance are actually pretty easy to explain.

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