Atmospheric circulation of brown dwarfs: Jets, vortices, and time variability

Xi Zhang, Adam P. Showman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


A variety of observational evidence demonstrates that brown dwarfs exhibit active atmospheric circulations. In this study we use a shallow-water model to investigate the global atmospheric dynamics in the stratified layer overlying the convective zone on these rapidly rotating objects. We show that the existence and properties of the atmospheric circulation crucially depend on key parameters including the energy injection rate and radiative timescale. Under conditions of strong internal heat flux and weak radiative dissipation, a banded flow pattern comprised of east-west jet streams spontaneously emerges from the interaction of atmospheric turbulence with the planetary rotation. In contrast, when the internal heat flux is weak and/or radiative dissipation is strong, turbulence injected into the atmosphere damps before it can self-organize into jets, leading to a flow dominated by transient eddies and isotropic turbulence instead. The simulation results are not very sensitive to the form of the forcing. Based on the location of the transition between jet-dominated and eddy-dominated regimes, we suggest that many brown dwarfs may exhibit atmospheric circulations dominated by eddies and turbulence (rather than jets) due to the strong radiative damping on these worlds, but a jet structure is also possible under some realistic conditions. Our simulated light curves capture important features from observed infrared light curves of brown dwarfs, including amplitude variations of a few percent and shapes that fluctuate between single-peak and multi-peak structures. More broadly, our work shows that the shallow-water system provides a useful tool to illuminate fundamental aspects of the dynamics on these worlds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberL6
JournalAstrophysical Journal Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 10 2014


  • brown dwarfs
  • methods: numerical
  • stars: atmospheres
  • stars: low-mass

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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