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Abstract

Over the past decade, the Cassini-Huygens mission to the Saturn system has revolutionized our understanding of Titan and its climate. Veiled in a thick organic haze, Titan's visible appearance belies an active, seasonal weather cycle operating in the lower atmosphere. Here we review the climate of Titan, as gleaned from observations and models. Titan's cold surface temperatures (∼90 K) allow methane to form clouds and precipitation analogously to Earth's hydrologic cycle. Because of Titan's slow rotation and small size, its atmospheric circulation falls into a regime resembling Earth's tropics, with weak horizontal temperature gradients. A general overview of how Titan's atmosphere responds to seasonal forcing is provided by estimating a number of climate-related timescales. Titan lacks a global ocean, but methane is cold-trapped at the poles in large seas, and models indicate that weak baroclinic storms form at the boundary of Titan's wet and dry regions. Titan's saturated troposphere is a substantial reservoir of methane, supplied by deep convection from the summer poles. A significant seasonal cycle, first revealed by observations of clouds, causes Titan's convergence zone to migrate deep into the summer hemispheres, but its connection to polar convection remains undetermined. Models suggest that downwelling of air at the winter pole communicates upper-level radiative cooling, reducing the stability of the middle troposphere and priming the atmosphere for spring and summer storms when sunlight returns to Titan's lakes. Despite great gains in our understanding of Titan, many challenges remain. The greatest mystery is how Titan is able to retain an abundance of atmospheric methane with only limited surface liquids, while methane is being irreversibly destroyed by photochemistry. A related mystery is how Titan is able to hide all the ethane that is produced in this process. Future studies will need to consider the interactions between Titan's atmosphere, surface, and subsurface in order to make further progress in understanding Titan's complex climate system.

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2016-06-29
2024-04-15
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