Shop Windows to the Universe

Please help support Windows to the Universe, and our activities to help Earth and space science teachers, with a tax-exempt donation today!
Saturn has a huge, swirling storm at its South Pole. The storm is a bit like a hurricane on Earth. This gigantic storm is about 8,000 km (5,000 miles) across!
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Saturn's Southern Polar Vortex

Saturn's South Pole is very stormy. It is also surprisingly warm. A huge, hurricane-like storm is centered on the South Pole. Astronomers recently discovered that the pole is also warmer than any other place on the ringed planet.

Scientists have created a "heat map" of Saturn using infrared "light". It shows which parts of Saturn are warmer and which places are cooler. They were surprised when they saw that Saturn's South Pole is the hottest part of the ringed planet. A bright dot at the pole in the infrared picture shows that the temperature at the pole is about 60° C (108° F) higher than at the equator! One scientist said that if we found this temperature pattern on Earth it would be "like discovering that Antarctica is hotter than the Sahara Desert".

On Earth, cold air often gets trapped near the poles during winter. Scientists call this mass of cold air a "polar vortex". The swirling air near Saturn's South Pole looks a lot like a polar vortex. However, on Saturn the vortex traps warm air near the pole. Scientists are still trying to figure out how the vortex on Saturn works.

The warm air at the South Pole probably provides the energy that keeps the hurricane-like storm going. Like hurricanes on Earth, the storm at Saturn's pole has spiral bands of clouds, high wind speeds, and a gigantic eyewall. The "hurricane" on Saturn seems to be "locked" in place over the pole. That is different from Earthly hurricanes, which move around.

Saturn's "polar hurricane" is much larger than hurricanes on Earth. The storm on Saturn is thousands of kilometers (miles) across. The eye at the storm's center is about 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) in diameter. Clouds in the eyewall tower 30 to 75 kilometers (19 to 47 miles) above their surroundings. That is 2 to 5 times higher than in hurricanes on Earth. Winds around the polar vortex can reach speeds of 550 km/hour (342 miles per hour).

The "polar hurricane" on Saturn is the first storm with an eyewall discovered beyond Earth. Even Jupiter's Great Red Spot, which is much larger than Saturn's storm, does not have an eye or an eyewall.

Last modified January 20, 2009 by Randy Russell.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes books on science education, ranging from evolution, classroom research, and the need for science and math literacy!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Cool It! Game

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

The Poles of Saturn and Its Moons

There's a lot of strange and interesting stuff going on at both the North and South Poles of Saturn. Two of Saturn's moons also have interesting polar regions. Let's take a look! The atmosphere and clouds...more

Antarctica

Antarctica is unique. It is the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth. The land is barren and mostly covered with a thick sheet of ice. Antarctica is almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle...more

The Desert Biome

Deserts are full of interesting questions. How can anything survive in a place with hardly any water? Why is it so dry to begin with? You can find at least one desert on every continent except Europe....more

The Polar Atmosphere

Phenomena in the Polar Atmosphere There are some unique phenomena that happen in the atmosphere that is above the Earth's polar regions. Read on to discover more about some of the unique parts of the polar...more

An Overview of Motions in Saturn's Atmosphere

The most important motions in the atmosphere are winds. The major winds in Saturn's atmosphere are the zonal winds which are made of zones and belts. Zones are high pressure systems and belts are low pressure...more

Hurricanes (also known as Tropical Cyclones)

As a strong hurricane heads towards the coast, people prepare - boarding up houses, packing the car, and evacuating. These storms can spell disaster for people in hurricane prone areas, so they are taken...more

Wind

Wind is moving air. Warm air rises, and cool air comes in to take its place. This movement creates different pressures in the atmosphere which creates the winds around the globe. Since the Earth spins,...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF