Jupiter Jet Stream: NASA Figures Out How Gravity Waves Reverse Mysterious Streams

A processed image of Jupiter from Juno's ninth close flyby. NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © CC NC SA

NASA has finally determined what causes the powerful jet stream racing around Jupiter to suddenly reverse every four years. Strange gravity waves climb Jupiter's stratosphere, where they force the jet stream to flip. Similar activity, scientists believe, could cause weather chaos here on Earth.

Using five years of data from NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, researchers built a model of Jupiter's dynamic atmosphere. This gave them access to a much larger view of the planet than previous efforts, over an entire jet stream cycle.

The results were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.

Best-ever observations of Jupiter's atmosphere

"These measurements were able to probe thin vertical slices of Jupiter's atmosphere," said study co-author Amy Simon, who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a press release. "Previous data sets had lower resolution, so the signals were essentially smeared out over a large section of the atmosphere."

Results showed that the powerful jet stream extends higher into Jupiter's stratosphere than previously assumed. The team's model shows heat energy moving up through the planet's lower atmosphere. This produces gravitational waves which ripple into the stratosphere and force the jet stream to reverse.

This model closely mirrors Earth's own jet stream activity, leading researchers to believe the results from Jupiter could be useful back at home.

"Jupiter is much bigger than Earth, much farther from the sun, rotates much faster, and has a very different composition, but it turns out to be an excellent laboratory for understanding this equatorial phenomenon," said lead author and NASA researcher Rick Cosentino in the press release.

Jet stream activity on Earth

Volcanic ash from the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, in Indonesia, first alerted scientists to Earth's own jet stream. A more recent eruption of Anak Krakatau is pictured on November 10, 2007. Supri/Reuters

Earth's jet stream was first discovered after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia. A mysterious wind appeared to be carrying volcanic debris up west into the stratosphere—the section of sky where planes fly above the most turbulent weather. This is the same stuff which grounded flights over Bali last year and over Iceland in 2010.

Later testing saw weather balloons float into the stratosphere towards the east. Scientists observe this jet stream reversing every 28 months.

Fixed as these streams seem, a rare chaotic spate of wind in 2016 baffled weather forecasters. This new Jupiter research could shed light on gravitational wave activity on Earth, the researchers claim.

Raúl Morales-Juberías, study author and associate professor at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, said in the press release: "Despite the many differences between Earth and Jupiter, the coupling mechanisms between the lower and upper atmospheres in both planets are similar and have similar effects. Our model could be applied to study the effects of these mechanisms in other planets of the solar system and in exoplanets."