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Titan and Methane: Wet North Pole Explained?

Sep 21, 2015 05:42 PM EDT
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Titan's north pole
This image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the sun hitting Titan’s north polar seas. New research findings say methane is transported in pulses from the south to the north pole.
(Photo : Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho)

Methane is slowly circulating in Titan's atmosphere from pole to pole. In fact, it is steadily moving from that moon's south pole to the north pole, leaving the northerly end drenched. The reason for this has been a mystery to scientists for about a decade, since the Cassini-Huygens probe looked at Titan's atmosphere and saw the extra-wet northern area. However, researchers led by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) recently published their new findings on this in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Titan has very different temperatures from Earth, because it receives far less energy than Earth feels from the Sun -- it receives about one-hundredth as much energy, and has average temperatures of 292 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Therefore, its oceans and tumultuous weather are composed of liquid methane, as a release noted.

"We've been looking into different aspects of Titan's climate for the last several years," said Juan Lora of UCLA in the release. "We looked at different simulations to understand types of weather events in two dimensions and three dimensions. In two dimensions the atmosphere of Titan did not produce the asymmetrical liquid distribution. But we saw the asymmetry develop very quickly in 3D."

That is, the team recently produced three-dimensional models of that moon, showing how the methane rapidly evaporates from Titan's equator and moves in the atmosphere from the south end to the north end. The methane is transported in this way by pulses, or "bucket brigades," as the scientists called it in the release.

"Over thousands to tens of thousands of years it builds up in the north," said Lora, lead author of the new study, in the release. Eventually today's situation of imbalance resulted, he said. 

The researchers say that further study of that moon's complexities of surface and subsurface will add to this modeling work and lend findings on whether Titan might have an underground methane table, like a water table, as the release noted.

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