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Journal Articles Icarus Year : 2023

Saturn's seasonal variability from four decades of ground-based mid-infrared observations

James S. D. Blake
  • Function : Author
L. N. Fletcher
  • Function : Author
G. S. Orton
  • Function : Author
A. Antuñano
  • Function : Author
M. T. Roman
  • Function : Author
Y. Kasaba
  • Function : Author
T. Fujiyoshi
  • Function : Author
H. Melin
  • Function : Author
D. Bardet
  • Function : Author
J. A. Sinclair
  • Function : Author
M. Es-Sayeh


A multi-decade record of ground-based mid-infrared (7- 25 μm) images of Saturn is used to explore seasonal and non-seasonal variability in thermal emission over more than a Saturnian year (1984-2022). Thermal emission measured by 3-m and 8-m-class observatories (notably NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, Subaru, and ESO's Very Large Telescope) compares favourably with synthetic images based on both Cassini-derived temperature records and the predictions of radiative climate models. We find that 8-m class facilities are capable of resolving thermal contrasts on the scale of Saturn's belts, zones, polar hexagon, and polar cyclones, superimposed onto large-scale seasonal asymmetries. Seasonal changes in brightness temperatures of ∼ 30 K in the stratosphere and ∼ 10 K in the upper troposphere are observed, as the northern and southern polar stratospheric vortices (NPSV and SPSV) form in spring and dissipate in autumn. The timings of the first appearance of the warm polar vortices is successfully reproduced by radiative climate models, confirming them to be radiative phenomena, albeit entrained within sharp boundaries influenced by dynamics. Axisymmetric thermal bands (4-5 per hemisphere) display temperature gradients that are strongly correlated with Saturn's zonal winds, indicating winds that decay in strength with altitude from the cloud-tops to the ∼ 1 -mbar level, and implying meridional circulation cells in Saturn's upper troposphere and stratosphere forming the system of cool zones and warm belts. Saturn's thermal structure is largely repeatable from year to year (via comparison of infrared images in 1989 and 2018), with the exception of low-latitudes. Here we find evidence of inter-annual variations because the equatorial banding at 7 . 9 μm is inconsistent with a ∼ 15 -year period for Saturn's equatorial stratospheric oscillation, i.e., it is not strictly semi-annual. Either the oscillation has a longer period closer to ∼ 20 years, or its progression is naturally variable and interrupted by tropospheric meteorology (e.g., storms). Finally, observations between 2017-2022 extend the legacy of the Cassini mission, revealing the continued warming of the NPSV during northern summer in line with predictions of radiative climate models.

Dates and versions

insu-03947002 , version 1 (19-01-2023)



James S. D. Blake, L. N. Fletcher, G. S. Orton, A. Antuñano, M. T. Roman, et al.. Saturn's seasonal variability from four decades of ground-based mid-infrared observations. Icarus, 2023, 392, ⟨10.1016/j.icarus.2022.115347⟩. ⟨insu-03947002⟩
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