Dust devils. Giant hailstones. Supercell thunderstorms. The Earth is no stranger to extreme weather phenomena, but the universe at large is home to some that are even bigger, deadlier, and … more bizarre.
Here are five extraterrestrial atmospheric phenomena that you wouldn’t want to encounter.
An apocalyptic hellscape of molten iron rain
Imagine a world where it rained molten metal – a world with an atmosphere so hot that the clouds consist of droplets of liquid iron and other minerals.
Welcome to the brown dwarf Luhman 16B.
Halfway between a star and a planet, a brown dwarf is a star that failed to gather enough mass to attain the temperatures needed to sustain fusion reactions in its core. Still, in Luhman 16B’s case, temperatures remain high enough to melt iron – whose melting point is 1538 °C.
Luhman 16B is covered in patchy, global clouds that fluctuate rapidly on a day-to-day basis. Complex weather patterns originate from multiple layers of clouds, whose structures vary strongly the deeper into the atmosphere we travel. Not that we’d ever want to visit; human remains are cremated at 1000 °C.
An atmosphere of pure plasma
The search for water in our universe is closely tied with the search for life. As such, any leads in the hunt for H2O are met with great interest in the scientific community, and planet Gliese 1214 b raised a few eyebrows when it was discovered to have an atmosphere rich in water.
Unfortunately, that water doesn’t exist in a liquid state. In fact, it doesn’t even exist in a solid or gaseous state – it’s a plasma. Gliese 1214 b orbits its star at a distance 70 times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun, reaching temperatures of 280 °C, making it uninhabitable.
Take a block of ice – solid H2O; one part oxygen, two parts hydrogen. The water molecules are arranged in a rigidly structured pattern. Add some heat, and the molecules get excited; they begin vibrating and lose their cohesion, but remain held together as a liquid. Add more heat, and the molecules become excited enough to move around freely, separated from each other by vast distances: water vapor.
But add even more heat and the molecules themselves lose their cohesion, breaking apart into charged particles. You’re no longer dealing with simple molecules of H2O floating around, but also the “broken” components of water molecules, including oxygen, hydrogen, and even free electrons, all floating around as a soupy mess we call plasma.
Yes, this is the same plasma found in plasma TVs, but other examples of plasma you may be unaware of include fluorescent lamps, neon signs, and lightning. Needless to say, you wouldn’t want to breathe any of these, let alone live on a planet in which the air itself was plasma.
The lightning rocket dust storms of Mars
On Earth, sandstorms can carry dust as high as a mile up into the air. On Mars, dust storms can attain heights of 20 to 30 miles into the atmosphere, expanding globally and obscuring the entire surface for days – even weeks. Without any rain to wash the dust out of the sky, the particles hang in the dry planet’s atmosphere far longer than in Earth’s – so long that they act as seeds for clouds to form.
But the size of these dust storms isn’t the only thing that’s impressive about them. When a pocket of dust within a storm is heated by the sun, the surrounding atmosphere warms quickly, creating a temperature discrepancy on the cold planet. Since hot air rises and cold air falls, the pocket of dust is propelled upward at 22 mph, like a rocket – 100 times faster than the convection normally occurring within the storm. As the dust particles rub against one another, friction charges the dust cloud with electrostatic forces that can discharge as lightning bolts. The result is a giant, roiling sandstorm crackling with electricity.
The falling sky of Pluto
No, we’re not being alarmists – on Pluto, the sky is literally falling.
It is a popular misconception that Earth’s seasons are caused by our planet being further away from the Sun during winter and closer during summer. Were this the case, then seasons would be a global phenomenon, rather than a hemispherical one caused by the Earth’s axial tilt. But it is the case on Pluto.
The difference between the Earth’s closest and furthest distance from the Sun is only about 5%. But Pluto’s elongated orbit results in a huge discrepancy between its closest and furthest distances from the Sun – the dwarf-planet orbits at nearly twice the distance from the Sun during a “Plutonian winter” than it does during its summer.
As a result, scientists predict that as Pluto moves away from the Sun, its thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide gas gradually freezes and falls to the ground as ice. Then, as the dwarf-planet nears the Sun, Pluto warms until the ice sublimates back into a gas – that is, it transitions directly from solid to gas, skipping the liquid phase. Imagine a great mist rising and falling from the air – then consider that that mist is the atmosphere.
The catastrophic hurricane that won’t end
Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, ravaged the country for several days in 2005 with winds reaching up to 175 mph and extending 120 miles from its center. Jupiter has an infamous hurricane of its own that has been raging for centuries. With wind speeds of almost 270 mph – faster than any ever recorded on Earth – this hurricane was once large enough to swallow up the Earth, Venus, and Mars: the Great Red Spot.
Despite its name, the Great Red Spot’s color changes from a brick-red to a pale salmon, sometimes even blanching to white. What exactly causes the reddish color remains a mystery, but some theories suggest it is material dredged up from Jupiter’s surface, or one of its deeper gas layers.
For the past century, the Great Red Spot has been shrinking, and no one knows whether this is the result of normal fluctuations or a sign that this colossal storm is slowly coming to an end. But even if it does die out, its legacy will live on through the Oval BA – also known as the Little Red Spot. First seen in 2000, the Little Red Spot – which is the size of the Earth – has been getting stronger…