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date: 22 October 2018

Jets in Planetary Atmospheres

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Jet streams, “jets” for short, are remarkably coherent streams of air found in every major atmosphere. They have a profound effect on a planet’s global circulation, and have been an enigma since the belts and zones of Jupiter were discovered in the 1600s. The study of jets, including what processes affect their size, strength, direction, shear stability, and predictability, are active areas of research in geophysical fluid dynamics. Jet research is multidisciplinary and global, involving collaborations between observers, experimentalists, numerical modelers, and applied mathematicians. Jets in atmospheres have strong analogies with shear instability in nonneutral plasmas, and these connections are highlighted throughout the article. The article begins with a description of four major challenges that jet researchers face: nonlinearity, non-intuitive wave physics, non-constant-coefficients, and copious nondimensional numbers. Then, two general fluid-dynamical tenets, the practice of rendering expressions dimensionally homogeneous (nondimensional), and the universal properties of shocks are applied to the open question of what controls the on-off switch of shear instability.

The discussion progresses to how the physics of jets varies in equatorial, midlatitude, and polar regions, and how jets are observed to behave in each of these settings. The all-in-one conservation law of potential vorticity (PV), which combines the conservation laws of mass, momentum, and thermal energy into a single expression, is the common language of jet research. Earth and Uranus have weak retrograde equatorial jets, but most planets exhibit super-rotating equatorial jets, which require eddies to transport momentum up gradient in a non-intuitive manner. Jupiter and Saturn exhibit multiple alternating jets in their midlatitudes. The theory for why jets are invariably zonal (east-west orientated) is reviewed, and the particular challenges that Jupiter’s sharp westward jets present to existing theories and laboratory experiments are discussed. The impressive inhibition of mixing across polar jets is examined; and the transient nature of polar jets on Earth and Mars is contrasted with the permanence of jets on the giant planets, including Saturn’s beautiful north-polar hexagon. The article rounds out with a sample of ideas for future research.