The Most Extreme Weather In the Solar System
by Lisa Winter
“Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars…”
Spoiler alert: the weather Earth is far nicer than on any other planet in our solar system. Sure, you might have to carry an umbrella sometimes and the bottoms of your pants get all wet, and the wind kicks around pollen which can cause pesky allergies. But then you don’t have to worry about sulfuric acid falling out of the sky, which is nice.
Our Solar System is home to some fairly extreme weather. Here’s our picks.
Mercury almost completely lacks an atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have extreme physical conditions. As the closest planet to the sun it’s no surprise that the temperature of the planet can get extremely hot – but the lack of atmosphere means that it is unable to retain the heat and can therefore can have incredible temperature swings.
In addition to barely having an atmosphere, Mercury doesn’t have much in the way of axial tilt. Because of this, there are no seasonal changes in weather. It also rotates incredibly slowly, as it only has about three “days” every two years. When Mercury is closest to the sun, the surface temperature can reach over 800º F (approx 430º C). During the night temperatures can dip down to -290º F (-180º C).
If a human were to visit Mercury, he or she would either burst into flames or freeze solid depending on where the spaceship landed.
Our neighbor Venus is essentially the poster child for how greenhouse gasses can create a completely hellish environment. With a super-thick atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, Venus is able to trap more of the sun’s radiation than Mercury which allows it to reach (and retain) much higher temperatures. The surface temperature stays relatively consistent all year at 900º F (480º C). The pressure on Venus is approximately 90 times higher than sea level on Earth. In order to recreate that pressure here, a diver would need to venture 1000 meters down into the ocean.
Rain on Venus is almost purely sulfuric acid, which is extremely corrosive. Sulfuric acid can erode clothing nearly instantly and produce severe burns on flesh. However, the surface temperature of Venus is so great, the rain evaporates before hitting the ground. There is a little water in the atmosphere, which can produce violent explosions when it meets the sulfuric acid. Though Venus is only slightly smaller than Earth, it takes only four hours for the atmosphere to completely rotate around the planet. Here, it it takes about 243 days to accomplish the same task.
Even with these extremely high temperatures, there is snow on Venus. Well, not snow as we know it. It’s a basalt frost remnant of metals that vaporized in the atmosphere.
Forget what would happen if a human were to visit Venus; we haven’t even sent probes that lasted longer than a couple hours on the surface due to the intense conditions.
Mars is currently under a lot of investigation as some believe it may have harbored life in the past and could give clues to the origin of life on Earth. Because it once was home to flowing water, there must have been an atmosphere capable of holding it there. Now the surface is dry and huge cyclones of dust can tear apart the landscape.
Mars’ missing atmosphere is a mystery but there is still plenty of bizarre weather happening on the planet. The poles are covered in ice caps and there are intense snowstorms. While our snow is made of frozen water, Martian snow is actually made from frozen carbon dioxide, which we know as “dry ice.”
Like Mercury, Mars’ super-thin atmosphere has a hard time holding in heat from the sun. Temperatures at the equator can be a comfortable 70º F. (20º C) in the sun, but at night the same spot can dip to -58º F (-50º C).
Massive dust storms can take over Mars quite easily. While dust devils happen on Earth in dry areas, the ones on Mars can envelop the entire planet over the course of a few days.
As for what it might look like for a human to visit Mars, we might not have to wait too much longer. It is hoped that plans to send the first astronauts will set foot on Mars within the next few decades.
It doesn’t take a particularly large telescope to see that Jupiter has a lot of gigantic storms. The most famous of these storms is known as the Great Red Spot (GRS), which has been raging on like a hurricane for at least 400 years. This storm is so massive, three Earths could fit inside it easily. There is another spot known as the Oval BA which was discovered about seven years ago which is now moving as fast as its larger counterpart, and even appears to be increasing in size.
The stripes on Jupiter are caused by jet streams. Jet streams on Earth vary, though we usually only have 1 or 2 in each hemisphere. Jupiter is home to at least 30 which tear across the planet in opposite directions reaching speeds of over 300 mph (482 km/h). Two of these jet streams are responsible for holding the GRS in its present location. The clouds that appear as stripes are composed of frozen ammonia, as the temperature at that part of the atmosphere is -220 degrees F (-140 degrees C). Earlier this year, it was discovered that Jupiter can form diamonds in its atmosphere.
Some of Jupiter’s 67 moons can also have pretty intense weather. The surface of Europa is covered in a 62-mile-deep (100 km) saltwater ocean, which is enclosed in a layer of ice. Europa may even have some of the chemical compounds needed for life, which has many astrobiologists excited.
Io has hundreds volcanoes on its surface which respond to gravitational fluctuations from Jupiter. While these active spots can exceed 3092º F (1700º C), other patches of the moon are freezing. Because of the moon’s low gravity, these eruptions can shoot as over 250 miles (402 km) above the surface. Earlier this year, it was discovered that the volcanos aren’t even where they should be, based off of temperature models.
Like Jupiter, Saturn’s atmosphere is composed mostly of hydrogen. Wind speeds can reach as high as 1000 mph (1609 km/h) which is just about as fast as a speeding bullet. The highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth during a hurricane was in 1996, during Tropical Cyclone Cynthia when gusts reached 253 mph (408 km/h).
At Saturn’s North Pole there is an extremely cool storm going on. It isn’t circular or rounded like most extreme weather systems but it is actually shaped like a hexagon. The clearest image of this storm can be seen in a composite that was released last month. Each side of the hexagon is 8,600 miles (13,800 km) long, which is very close to the diameter of Earth.
Though the atmosphere is very thin and cold there is plenty of heat down towards the surface that can generate some extreme storms. In the northern hemisphere, there is a storm which is 10,000 km across. If that were on Earth, it would be like starting in Los Angeles and traveling due east all the way to Beijing, China.
Toward Saturn’s surface the carbon in air can be pressed into graphite. Yes, Saturn has pencil lead flying around. Even closer to the core the carbon is pressed into diamond. If a human were to travel to Saturn, the diamonds would cut through their body like countless little bullets.
Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has huge lakes which initially look promising for a spring break vacation spot. However, the temperature is about -260º F (-162º C), and the lakes aren’t made of water – it’s actually liquid methane!
Uranus is the coldest planet in the solar system with temperatures hitting -371º F (−224º C). Uranus is quite odd in that it is tipped entirely on its side, with the North Pole facing the sun. This may have been the result of a massive collision, as its magnetic field does not align with its poles.
At first glance Uranus looks like a plain blue ball with not a lot going on, but the planet has a fairly active weather system and enormous hurricanes that can only be seen with infrared telescopes. Like Jupiter, Uranus also has diamonds raining down on its surface.
Our most distant planet, Neptune, is home to extreme weather similar to the other gas giants. While it has storms large enough to swallow the entire Earth and bands of weather that mark the planet’s latitude, it also has the most violent wind in the solar system which can reach an astonishing 1,500 mph (2414 km/h). Because Neptune’s topography is fairly flat, there is no friction to slow down these incredible gusts of wind. Like all of the other gas planets, atmospheric carbon compresses into diamond rain.
Neptune has over a dozen moons, the largest of which is Triton. This moon has an average temperature of -315 degrees F (-192 degrees C). If you wanted to visit, the trip would have to happen in the next 10-100 million years. Triton is slowly getting closer to Neptune and will most likely be ripped up into a Saturn-like ring system.
A trip to Neptune would also include listening to the sound barrier break as the wind blows, though the visitor would freeze solid almost instantly.
Pluto experiences MASSIVE swings in temperature due to its high elliptical orbit. When Pluto is farthest away from the sun it is completely frozen over. As it gets closer to the sun, the gas heats up and it produces a gassy atmosphere, which also hurts its planetary status, as it acts more like a comet. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “If you slid Pluto to where Earth is right now, heat from the sun would evaporate that ice, and it would grow a tail. Now, that’s no kind of behavior for a planet.”
Our solar system is home to some pretty extreme weather. Learning about how these systems work can increase our knowledge of how some of these planets were formed and even give clues about the potential for life. But when it comes down to actually spending time on the surface on some of these planets, barring major technological advances, there’s no place like home.
Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Björn Jónsson (IAAA)