Generation of equatorial jets by large-scale latent heating on the giant planets

Yuan Lian, Adam P. Showman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Three-dimensional numerical simulations show that large-scale latent heating resulting from condensation of water vapor can produce multiple zonal jets similar to those on the gas giants (Jupiter and Saturn) and ice giants (Uranus and Neptune). For plausible water abundances (3-5 times solar on Jupiter/Saturn and 30 times solar on Uranus/Neptune), our simulations produce ∼20 zonal jets for Jupiter and Saturn and 3 zonal jets on Uranus and Neptune, similar to the number of jets observed on these planets. Moreover, these Jupiter/Saturn cases produce equatorial superrotation whereas the Uranus/Neptune cases produce equatorial subrotation, consistent with the observed equatorial-jet direction on these planets. Sensitivity tests show that water abundance, planetary rotation rate, and planetary radius are all controlling factors, with water playing the most important role; modest water abundances, large planetary radii, and fast rotation rates favor equatorial superrotation, whereas large water abundances favor equatorial subrotation regardless of the planetary radius and rotation rate. Given the larger radii, faster rotation rates, and probable lower water abundances of Jupiter and Saturn relative to Uranus and Neptune, our simulations therefore provide a possible mechanism for the existence of equatorial superrotation on Jupiter and Saturn and the lack of superrotation on Uranus and Neptune. Nevertheless, Saturn poses a possible difficulty, as our simulations were unable to explain the unusually high speed (∼400 m s- 1) of that planet's superrotating jet. The zonal jets in our simulations exhibit modest violations of the barotropic and Charney-Stern stability criteria. Overall, our simulations, while idealized, support the idea that latent heating plays an important role in generating the jets on the giant planets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)373-393
Number of pages21
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Atmospheres, Dynamics
  • Jupiter
  • Neptune, Atmosphere
  • Saturn
  • Uranus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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