Scaling laws for convection and jet speeds in the giant planets

Adam P. Showman, Yohai Kaspi, Glenn R. Flierl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Three dimensional studies of convection in deep spherical shells have been used to test the hypothesis that the strong jet streams on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune result from convection throughout the molecular envelopes. Due to computational limitations, these simulations must be performed at parameter settings far from jovian values and generally adopt heat fluxes 5-10 orders of magnitude larger than the planetary values. Several numerical investigations have identified trends for how the mean jet speed varies with heat flux and viscosity in these models, but no previous theories have been advanced to explain these trends. Here, we show using simple arguments that if convective release of potential energy pumps the jets and viscosity damps them, the mean jet speeds split into two regimes. When the convection is weakly nonlinear, the equilibrated jet speeds should scale approximately with F/ν, where F is the convective heat flux and ν is the viscosity. When the convection is strongly nonlinear, the jet speeds are faster and should scale approximately as (F/ν)1/2. We demonstrate how this regime shift can naturally result from a shift in the behavior of the jet-pumping efficiency with heat flux and viscosity. Moreover, both Boussinesq and anelastic simulations hint at the existence of a third regime where, at sufficiently high heat fluxes or sufficiently small viscosities, the jet speed becomes independent of the viscosity. We show based on mixing-length estimates that if such a regime exists, mean jet speeds should scale as heat flux to the 1/4 power. Our scalings provide a good match to the mean jet speeds obtained in previous Boussinesq and anelastic, three-dimensional simulations of convection within giant planets over a broad range of parameters. When extrapolated to the real heat fluxes, these scalings suggest that the mass-weighted jet speeds in the molecular envelopes of the giant planets are much weaker-by an order of magnitude or more-than the speeds measured at cloud level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1258-1273
Number of pages16
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2011


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

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Scaling laws for convection and jet speeds in the giant planets'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this