LOS ANGELES (AP) — It began as a bright white dot in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Within days, the dot grew larger and stormier.

Soon the tempest enveloped the ringed planet, triggering lightning flashes thousands of times more intense than on Earth.

The international Cassini spacecraft and ground telescopes have been tracking the turbulence since last December, visible from Earth as a type of storm known as a “Great White Spot.”

“It’s still going like crazy,” said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

>> Listen: Cassini Spacecraft Records Saturn Lightning

Such planet-wide weather disturbances are rare on Saturn, where the atmosphere is typically hazy and calm. Since 1876, astronomers have observed only five other megastorms on Saturn.

“This is a one-of-a-kind storm,” said Andrew Ingersoll, a self-described planetary weatherman at the California Institute of Technology, who was part of the discovery team.

Scientists have long studied weather on other planets. One of the solar system’s most famous landmarks is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a hurricane-like storm that has been raging for centuries. Landers and rovers to Mars’ surface often carried weather stations, dodged dust storms and sought favorable places to park during the winter.

An instrument aboard Cassini, which is orbiting Saturn, first picked up radio outbursts on Dec. 5, 2010 from a lightning storm. Around the same time, amateur astronomers peering through telescopes saw a bright point in Saturn’s northern half. Further observations confirmed it was a brewing storm.

The storm system, which occurred during the start of Saturn spring, grew in size and intensity, eventually stretching around the planet. Scientists don’t exactly know what stirs up the storms, but they think it could be linked to the change of seasons.

At the height of the storm, Cassini detected 10 lightning strikes per second. Scientists said the electrical activity emitted by the bursts were 10,000 times stronger than lightning on Earth.

The findings were described in two papers published in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

The new work represents “some of the most detailed observations so far of such a dramatic event,” Peter Read of the University of Oxford wrote in an accompanying editorial.

Saturn’s violent weather differs from Earth and Jupiter in significant ways. Lightning storms on Earth tend to be localized and short-lived, lasting only a few hours. Jupiter storms can last for days and lightning is far more common there than on Saturn.

Since entering orbit around Saturn in 2004, Cassini has witnessed 10 storms in a region of the southern hemisphere known as “storm alley” because of the high level of storm activity.

The previous storms were much weaker compared with the latest one, the first to be detected in the northern hemisphere.

Comments (167)
  1. Afterburner says:

    Another clear indication of the serious effects of Global Warming Climate Change.

    1. Mark says:

      “Comet” ELEnin is in alignment with Saturn and the Sun today. Massive disturbances expected and observed. Wake up people. “Comet” ELEnin is not a comet…

  2. Bob Schwartz says:

    yeha Global warming

  3. pancanfinfin says:

    Looks more like the results of an impact or volcanism but Saturn is suppose to be a gaseous planet?

    1. John says:

      Yeah, don’t listen to the scientists. You know better Mr. Obama…er..I mean pancanfinfin.

  4. BMF says:

    The EPA is frantically writing new regulations to speed up the shut down of energy sources here in the US in order to prevent increasingly violent storms from occurring on Saturn.

    Additionally, the IPCC is including a new chapter in its next report on the catastrophic impact on Saturn of Earthly global warming, global cooling, and climate change based on a 1976 Earth Day report written by Green Peace.

  5. Sailordude says:

    Open the pod bay doors Hal.

    I can’t do that Dave, there is a storm outside.

  6. WonderBoy says:

    You’d need an industrial strength Flux Capacitor to handle that much juice, but what a ride!

  7. J R says:

    ..and the selfish Saturnians still refuse to give up thier SUVs

  8. Jmac5280 says:

    As fred (the pot) calls the kettle black

  9. LeeP says:

    The mothership is trying to achieve orbital escape velocity. Next stop- 3rd planet to refill the water tanks…….

  10. Plato says:

    Saturn is not a planet. It is a celestial orb attached to a perfect crystalline sphere. To think otherwise is heresy.

  11. Ben Dover says:

    Damn you SUV drivers! DAMN YOU!

  12. Bones says:

    It’s NOT called “Global Warming” anymore! Get this into your heads… it is now referred to as GLOABL DISTRUPTION!.

    Otherwise Environmental Scientists (aka federal grant projcets and hippies) has a hard time selling it’s propaganda as the climate seems to be cooling a tad.

  13. Farmer Bob says:

    “This is a one-of-a-kind storm,” said Andrew Ingersoll, a self-described planetary weatherman at the California Institute of Technology. . .

    How does *he* know? Just because *he’s* never heard of one before doesn’t mean they aren’t routine over time . . . you know, just like heating and cooling cycles — maunder minimums and the like — right here on earth.

  14. Smitty says:

    Solar warming! Get Al Snore on it!

  15. Danny says:

    Ben Jealous of the NAACP is protesting these very white storm clouds for their lack of diversity.

    1. Stroganovsky says:

      NASA is going to compensate people of color for this despicable white storm system by naming it “Hurricane Barack.”

      1. Tuscaneer says:

        Better they should name such a big-azz storm after Michelle. Moo-chelle!

  16. Stroganovsky says:

    Oh fine, now the Saturnalians, fleeing their disaster ridden planet, will demand we open our borders to fellow members of the solar system who are simply “seeking a better life.” And Maryland will treat them to instate tuition rates.

  17. Mad Max says:

    It’s all Bush’s fault…!!!

  18. CradleofIdiocy says:

    “Journalists” are idiots. The person who wrote this says, “……the atmosphere is typically hazy and calm.” Average winds on Saturn are 800-900 mph. That’s hardly what I’d call calm.

    Journalists shouldn’t be writing science for mass consumption. Idiocy like this is why the global warming propaganda is promulgated through the media. These people have no knowledge of science.

    1. Nancy Poleosi says:

      Goblule Warning am real!

      I are ofended buy yur use of science to sho howe dum I are.
      N. Polesi

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