“Dark vortices coast through the atmosphere like huge, lens-shaped gaseous mountains,” said UC-Berkeley research astronomer Mike Wong, who headed the OPAL (Hubble’s Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy) team that analyzed the Hubble data. “And the companion clouds are similar to so-called organic clouds that appear as pancake-shaped features lingering over mountains on Earth.”
The storm itself, though, is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced on Earth—at least in documented history. Neptune’s “maelstrom” is 3,000 miles across. Imagine a horrific weather system stretching across the entire contiguous United States. That’d be a major bummer.
Evidence of the vortices was first noted in 2015 when astronomers observed bright clouds on our distant planetary neighbor. Said clouds are formed when Neptune’s airflow is disturbed and forced upward, creating the vortex. That gas freezes into methane crystals at high altitudes and forms clouds.
Both Hubble and Voyager 2 have observed similar phenomena in the past, but this is the first time it’s been seen in a couple decades. Scientists plan to use the data to better understand both Neptune’s atmosphere and the dark vortex itself—lest they show up on nearer shores.
This new Hubble Space Telescope image confirms the presence of a dark vortex in the atmosphere of Neptune. The full visible-light image at left shows that the dark feature resides near and below a patch of bright clouds in the planet’s southern hemisphere. The full-color image at top right is a close-up of the complex feature. The vortex is a high-pressure system. The image at bottom right shows that the vortex is best seen at blue wavelengths Credits: NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong and J. Tollefson (UC Berkeley)
3,000-mile long storms probably aren’t actually coming to Earth anytime soon, but hey, I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow, and I’ve seen the harrowing data coming from climate scientists’ work. There may be no need to fear the dark vortex (yet), but there’s plenty of reason to confront the preventable, human-induced climate changes that we’ve already begun to experience.