Extreme Weather in Space: The Most Bizarre Storms in the Solar System

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
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In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at some of the most extreme and bizarre storms ever recorded in the solar system. Including trips to Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, plus the moons Titan, Io, and more! Which of these storms do you think is the most interesting? And which is the most bizarre?

Extreme Weather in Space: The Most Bizarre Storms in the Solar System

At its simplest, a storm is a disturbance of some kind in the atmosphere, or across the natural world. When we think of them, then, we so often picture regular storms as they happen on Earth - complete with howling winds, torrential rain, and raging blizzards. However, because every other planet that isn’t Earth has a unique atmosphere, and because every world is different, the storms that take place not on Earth can also be very different, too.

So, this is Unveiled, and today we’re exploring some of the most bizarre storms in the solar system.

Clearly, just on Earth, storms can already vary in severity. Some pass quickly and inflict little-to-no damage, while others can cause immense destruction and long-lasting devastation. By now, we’re well acquainted with the most common types… but there are still some more unusual storm events that can occasionally form here, with the right conditions. Fire tornados, or fire whirls, for example, are pretty much exactly what they sound like. They’re a swirling vortex of flame… which can develop in wildfires, can last for hours, and can generate temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in some instances. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s thundersnow… another rare storm type, but this time merging a thunderstorm and a blizzard, to bring the worst aspects of both. Winds can reach tremendous speeds, the snow is thick and harsh enough to blind anyone caught in the middle of it, and the lightning that flashes across the sky carries extra strength, as well, just to make matters worse.

But still, even with the possibility of fire tornadoes and thundersnow, Earth’s most extreme weather is perhaps little match for what can be seen on some of the other planets. First, we’re headed to Saturn, a ringed giant that’s also famous for hosting massive and violent thunderstorms. When these exceptionally angry, Saturnian clouds gather, they’re visible from space - leading scientists to name them “Great White Spots”. They seemingly hit their peak every couple of decades, at regular intervals in the Saturnian year, which lasts for around twenty-nine Earth years. But relatively rare as they are, when they do emerge they can grow so big that they’re comparable in size to Earth. And they can spread so far that they essentially wrap all around Saturn’s northern hemisphere.

These storms bring major shifts in pressure and temperature, plus surging electrical events, but they’re not the only extreme examples on Saturn. In the southern hemisphere, there’s also the Dragon Storm - so named for its unusual shape, and situated close to an area of particularly high storm activity on the planet known as “storm alley”. What’s perhaps especially bizarre about many of the storms on Saturn, however, is the strength of the lightning… with NASA (via the ground-breaking Cassini Space Probe mission) finding that lightning bolts can be more than 10,000 times stronger there than they are here.

Saturn isn’t the only outer giant with violent storms, though. Neptune may be considered Uranus’ twin, but it does have the distinction of hosting the solar system’s fastest recorded wind speeds. And those ferocious winds on this far-off world have previously given rise to what’s known as the “Great Dark Spot” - first seen by the iconic Voyager 2 probe, during a flyby in 1989. The spot is thought to form from a break in Neptune’s methane clouds, which are themselves composed of frozen methane crystals.

Back when Voyager flew close to the planet, it managed to capture winds in the region at speeds of around 1,300 miles per hour. Which is so fast that they are, in fact, constantly breaking the sound barrier… which naturally leads to a sonic boom. Only, on Neptune, and in the Great Dark Spot, a sonic boom isn’t a one-off event, but a constant and deafening cacophony. If we had storms with Neptune-like winds here on Earth, then, the sky would be forever filled with loud explosions. As it is, however, the strongest storm winds ever recorded on Earth reach 253 miles per hour, only. Which is nowhere near breaking the speed of sound... and is around five times slower than what we’ve seen on Neptune.

Of course, we know that planets aren’t the only objects in space to have atmospheres. And, therefore, they’re not the only places that can host storms, either. Some moons do so as well, including the much-studied, unique, Saturnian moon, Titan. Because it only gets one percent of the sunlight that Earth does, Titan’s climate is generally very cold… but there are still thought to be some major similarities between it and Earth. For one, there’s something of a hydrological cycle on Titan, akin to the water cycle on Earth. It generates methane rain on the moon, and perhaps allows for methane rainbows, too.

What makes the rain on Titan even more bizarre, however, is that because of low gravity it falls as if in slow motion. Titan has about one seventh the gravity of Earth, so the liquid methane would also fall at about one seventh the speed that the raindrops on our planet do, at least. It’s thought, then, that if you were to somehow stand on the surface of Titan during a rainy day, you would be able to feel each individual drop of methane rain as it hit your skin. You’d be able to watch as every splash of liquid gently traced a path to the ground. When you consider that Titan is still thought by many to be the most promising body in the solar system to one day host humanity away from Earth, then it becomes clear how different any life away from our planet could be. Singing in the (slow-motion) rain on Titan really could be the norm for our species, one day… even if, right now, the prospect feels weird and unusual.

But, finally, let’s take a trip to the largest planet orbiting our sun - Jupiter. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is easily the most famous storm in the solar system, and for good reason. It’s the largest solar system storm ever recorded, with an incredible diameter that, at one time, spanned the width of three Earth’s… and scientists think it may have been raging nonstop for more than 350 years. Despite this, however, the planet does have some immediate competition when it comes to violent natural events.

One of Jupiter’s many moons, Io, has the distinction of being the solar system’s most volcanically active place. There are hundreds of volcanoes littering Io, persistently launching gas - including sulfur dioxide - hundreds of miles above the moon’s surface. What’s especially significant for today’s video, though, is that Io’s eruptions are also capable of triggering multi-faceted chain reactions, so that more and more volcanism takes place there. And, with the gravitational pull of Jupiter constantly squeezing Io while all of this is going on, the stage is set for some almighty storms. Including for the formation of what NASA ominously refers to as “Curtains of Fire”. These are when cracks form in the surface of Io, and walls of flame blast out of the ground - again for many miles into the sky. These particular storms are arguably less “natural disaster” and more “hell in real life”… and, what’s more, they might not even be that rare. Were you to somehow find yourself ever on Io, then, you’d have to very quickly grow used to them.

That said, it’s hard to imagine that any lifeform could be capable of withstanding storms like these, on Io, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Titan, or anywhere else. And yet, scientists remain hopeful that life might still be found in at least some of those places. We already know of extremophiles on Earth - microbes and bacteria that can live in seemingly impossible conditions, like in the inner depths of a volcano or on the underside of a centuries-old iceberg - so the thinking is, why not elsewhere in the solar system, too?

Were we humans ever to witness these storms first-hand, though, perhaps in some future time when we’ve learnt how to adapt to other planets and moons, then they’d certainly feel surreal. Rain falling in slow motion, winds that break the sound barrier, and fire that rises from the ground for hours on end. If you ever experience any of that… then, clearly, you’re a long way from home! Nevertheless, it’s no wonder that space weather is an ever-growing field of science, because those are some of the most bizarre storms in the solar system.