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Jupiter: The Great Red Spot

The Great Red Spot

In recent years, Hurricanes have ravaged the coastal United States. These massive low pressure storms constantly threaten Caribbean and the coastline of the southern and eastern Unites States leaving massive amounts of destruction and tragedy in their wake when the disasters strike. Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating hurricanes in United States history, measured 120 miles across at its most powerful point! The death and destruction of this hurricane were unprecedented, and, at the time, the storm was touted as the greatest natural disaster in American history. Now imagine the destructive force of a hurricane that you could fit three entire Earths inside. Is such a storm hard to imagine? Imagine no more. There is such a storm in our solar system today on Jupiter’s surface. This storm is known as the Great Red Spot (GRS).

Galileo’s Full Color Rendition of the GRS

The GRS was first observed by Galileo in 1610 and has been the source of scientific interest ever since. The GRS, now known to be an anti-cyclonic storm akin to a hurricane on Earth, has persisted for over 300 years. The difference between the storm winds of the GRS and earthbound hurricanes have to do with the pressure systems in which they form. Earthbound hurricanes are formed within low-pressure systems, areas of the Earth’s atmosphere which have reduced air pressure, while the GRS is formed within a high-pressure system. High-pressure systems on Earth are normally caused by uneven heating of the Earth’s crust with the hot air rising and spreading. This has led researchers to believe that the root of the GRS might be found within the high temperatures of the planet’s core. The high pressure of the system is also believed to stabilize the storm lending to its longevity.

The GRS High Pressure system

Another factor contributing to the longevity of the GRS is the lack of land masses on the surface of Jupiter to impede its power. Hurricanes on Earth are diminished and eventually dissipate due to the conflict between the hurricane waters and the friction provided by land masses. On Jupiter, the GRS is free of this limitation which may be one of the leading factors to its unprecedented life span. Scientists believe that smaller storms also feed the GRS which has aided its stability and longevity.

Although the storm has been raging for over three centuries, there are indications that the end of the GRS may be in sight. According to a study done at the University of California-Berkley, the GRS lost fifteen percent of its diameter between 1996 and 2006. That means the storm shrunk by about one kilometer per day over the studied period. If the GRS continues to shrink, the once greatly oblong storm will become circular by 2040.  The study was conducted with the aid of software programmed to track the movement of the spot’s cloud patterns over a long period of time. It analyzed the strength of the winds within the vortex of the storm specifically, and, according to the data readings, the area of the vortex with the strongest winds has been shrinking over time.

One of the most strongly identified characteristics of the GRS is its color. Although this characteristic is the most defining, the reason behind the color has yet to be defined. It is thought that some chemical that is dredged up within the vortex of the storm reacts with the light of the Sun to give the storm its reddish hue, but this has yet to be confirmed. The storm has been observed ranging in color from extremely red to unbelievably pale. Several NASA probes sent into the atmosphere of Jupiter to better understand the chemical composition of the cloud have been ruthlessly ripped apart and crushed within the planets enormous atmospheric pressure with little to no data sent back. The winds within the vortex of the GRS can exceed 400 mph! Hurricane Katrina’s sustained a maximum wind speed of 175 mph. The destructive force within the GRS is unparalleled by anything that we can experience on Earth. The highest clouds of the storm extend eight kilometers higher than the rest of the clouds within the planet’s atmosphere.

The GRS has captured the imagination and attention of the scientific community for over 300 years. School children can readily identify Jupiter by its giant, red cosmetic blemish in its lower hemisphere. The storm has been pondered, studied, and celebrated, but the brutal truth of the GRS continues to mystify even our most sophisticated attempts to study the storm. Perhaps one day, our technology will finally be advanced enough to study the anomaly. Perhaps humanity will lose the race against the clock between technology and nature as the GRS continues to shrink and we will never understand the subtle intricacies of the giant spot that has captivated generations of scientific minds.





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  1. January 27, 2010 at 8:14 am
  2. March 4, 2010 at 4:59 am

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