Heavy Weather: A Drop in the Bucket

Twin tornadoes in Nebraska.

Recently, the news has been filled with stories and pictures from the US and parts of Canada about violent storms and tornadoes.  The wild weather is nothing new for the people in Tornado Alley, and the pictures of the twisters there are incredible.  In addition to the devastation of property that these storms have had, these storms also take a toll with the lives lost to these and other storms in throughout the world.

As powerful as the weather here on earth can be, the largest storms ever recorded are nothing but a drop in the bucket when it comes to the rest of the universe or, for that matter, the solar system.  Outside of our own planet, storms rage that could engulf the entire Earth and swallow it up without the slightest interruption.

One of the most famous storms outside of our own planet is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a gigantic storm on the face of the planet that has been in existence since at least 1665, when it was first observed by Gian Domenico Cassini.  The storm is massive in scale, ranging in size from 24,000 to 40,000 km wide from east to west, and 12,000 to 14,000 km wide from north to south.  To put this in perspective, Earth’s diameter is 12, 742 km, meaning the Great Red Spot could swallow our planet whole.

Jupiter and the Great Red Spot.

The Great Red Spot’s wind speed varies.  The center of the storm is relatively calm, but further out on the edges of the storm, wind speeds can be between 430 km/h up to 680 km/h.  Here on earth, the highest wind speed ever accurately recorded was 408 km/h during Tropical Cyclone Olivia in 1996.  Higher wind speeds are believed to exist in tornadoes, but have not been accurately measured and are not considered to be official records.

Much lesser known, but even more powerful than the Great Red Spot, is the Great Dark Spot on Neptune.  This is not one storm, but different storms that appear and disappear every few years.  Also differing from Jupiter, Neptune’s storms are relatively cloud free and have been measured with different sizes and shapes.

Neptune and its Great Dark Spot.

Wind speeds in Neptune’s storms have been measured at up to 2400 km/h, dwarfing even the Great Red Spot’s top speeds.  It is believed that the storm is actually a hole in the methane cloud layer of Neptune’s atmosphere, and the white coloring are clouds of frozen methane.

Finally, getting away from home, planet H209458b (unofficially called Osiris) is located 150 light years from earth.  In 2010, a team of astronomers became the first to measure wind speeds on an exoplanet when they were able to measure Osiris’ atmospheric winds.  These winds are caused when carbon monoxide gas streams from the hot day side of the planet to the cooler night side at a stunning estimated speed of 7000 km/h.

It’s a strong reminder of nature’s power when hurricanes and tornadoes wipe out towns, but it’s even more humbling when we put these killer storms in a wider perspective.  The most powerful storm on our tiny little planet does not even compare to what is out there in the universe.

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