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Nature. 2012 Jan 4;481(7379):58-61. doi: 10.1038/nature10666.

Polar methane accumulation and rainstorms on Titan from simulations of the methane cycle.

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California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA.


Titan has a methane cycle akin to Earth's water cycle. It has lakes in polar regions, preferentially in the north; dry low latitudes with fluvial features and occasional rainstorms; and tropospheric clouds mainly (so far) in southern middle latitudes and polar regions. Previous models have explained the low-latitude dryness as a result of atmospheric methane transport into middle and high latitudes. Hitherto, no model has explained why lakes are found only in polar regions and preferentially in the north; how low-latitude rainstorms arise; or why clouds cluster in southern middle and high latitudes. Here we report simulations with a three-dimensional atmospheric model coupled to a dynamic surface reservoir of methane. We find that methane is cold-trapped and accumulates in polar regions, preferentially in the north because the northern summer, at aphelion, is longer and has greater net precipitation than the southern summer. The net precipitation in polar regions is balanced in the annual mean by slow along-surface methane transport towards mid-latitudes, and subsequent evaporation. In low latitudes, rare but intense storms occur around the equinoxes, producing enough precipitation to carve surface features. Tropospheric clouds form primarily in middle and high latitudes of the summer hemisphere, which until recently has been the southern hemisphere. We predict that in the northern polar region, prominent clouds will form within about two (Earth) years and lake levels will rise over the next fifteen years.


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