Look! Titan has fog at the south pole! All of those bright sparkly reddish white patches are fog banks hanging out at the surface in Titan's late southern summer.
I first realized this a year ago, but it took me until now to finally have the time to be able to put all of the pieces together into a scientific paper that is convincing enough that I can now go up to any person in the street and say: Titan has fog at the south pole!
I will admit that the average person in the street is likely to say hmph. Or yawn. Or ask where Titan is. So let me tell you why finding fog at the south pole of Titan has been the scientific highlight of my summer.
Titan is the only place in the solar system other than the earth that appears to have large quantities of liquid sitting on the surface. At both the north and south poles we see large lakes of something dark. Oddly, though, we don’t actually know what that dark stuff is. At least some of it must certainly be ethane (that’s C2H6, for all of you who have forgotten your high school chemistry). Ethane slowly drips out of the sky on Titan, sort of like soot after a fire, only liquid soot in this case. Over geological time, big ponds of ethane could accumulate into the things that look like lakes on Titan. Odd as they sound, big lakes of liquid ethane are, at least to me, the least interesting possibility. They are the least interesting because ethane is a one way street. Once the liquid ethane is on the ground, it can’t evaporate and is there pretty much forever, unless it somehow sinks into the interior.
Why does all of that ethane drip out of the sky? Because sunlight breaks down methane (CH4) to form ethane much the same way it breaks down car exhaust fumes to form smog in big cities. There’s plenty of methane in the atmosphere, so the supply of ethane is near endless. The dripping will not end soon.
But the methane is where all of the potential action is. Methane is to Titan what water is to the earth. It’s a common component in the atmosphere and, at the temperature of Titan, it can exist in solid, liquid, or gas form. Like water on the earth, it forms clouds in the sky. Like water on the earth, it probably even forms rain. But what we don’t know is whether or not that rain makes it to the surface and pools into ponds or streams or lakes which then evaporate back into the atmosphere to start the cycle over again. In short, we don’t know if Titan has an active methane atmosphere-surface hydrological cycle analogous to the water atmosphere-surface hydrological cycle on the earth.
Because there is fog.
Fog – or clouds – or dew – or condensation in general – can form whenever air reaches about 100% humidity. There are two ways to get there. The first is obvious: add water (on Earth) or methane (on Titan) to the surrounding air. The second is much more common: make the air colder so it can hold less water and all of that excess needs to condense. This process is what makes your ice cold glass of water get condensation on the outside; the air gets too cold to hold the water that is in it, and it condenses on the side of your glass.
Terrestrial fog commonly forms from this process. That fog that you often see at sunrise hugging the ground is caused by ground-level air cooling overnight and suddenly finding itself unable to hang on to all its water. As the sun rises and the air heats, the fog goes away. You can also get fog around here when warm wet air passes over cold ground; the air cools, the water condenses. And, of course, there is mountain fog that is causes by air being pushed up a mountain side, where it cools and – you get the pictures – can no longer hold on to all of its water so it condenses.
Interestingly, none of this works on Titan.
It’s really really hard to make Titan air colder fast. If you were to turn the sun totally off, Titan’s atmosphere would still take something like 100 years to cool down. And even the coldest parts of the surface are much too warm to ever cause fog to condense.
What about mountain fog? A Titanian mountain would have to be about ~15,000 feet high before the air would be cold enough to condense. But Titan’s crust, made mostly of ice, can’t support mountains more than about 3000 feet high.
We’re left with that first process: add humidty.
On Titan, as on earth, the only way to add humidity is to evaporate liquid. On Titan this means liquid methane.
Liquid methane! There it is!
Evaporating methane means it must have rained. Rain means streams and pools and erosion and geology. Fog means that Titan has a currently active methane hydrological cycle doing who knows what on Titan.
But there’s one more twist. Even evaporating liquid methane on Titan is not sufficient to make fog, because if you ever made ground-level air 100% humid the first thing it would do after turning into fog would be to rise up like a massive cumulous cloud. There’s only one way to make the fog stick around on the ground for any amount of time, and that is to both add humidty and cool the air just a little. And the way to cool the air just a little is to have it in contact with something cold: like a pool of evaporating liquid methane!
Our paper describing these results (written by me, Alex Smith and Clare Chen, two Caltech undergraduate students, and Mate Ádámkovics, a colleague at UC Berkeley) was recently submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The paper will shortly go out for peer review, which is an integral part of the scientific process where the paper is vetted by experts. Peer review, as implemented in the current world of over-stressed astronomers, has some serious flaws, though. One problem is that the peer review is performed by one person! Sometimes that one person is thoughtful and insightful and provides excellent insight and commentary. Sometimes that one person misses or misunderstands crucial points. It is rare, though, that any one person can be a broad enough expert in all of the topics in a scientific paper to provide adequate review of the whole thing. Plus people are busy.
What is the solution? I don’t know. There has been much talk recently about all of this, and even some interesting experiments done by scientific journals. I thought I would try an experiment of my own here. It goes like this: feel free to provide a review of my paper! I know this is not for everyone. Send it directly to me or comment here. I will take serious comments as seriously as those of the official reviewer and will incorporate changes into the final version of the paper before it is published.
What kinds of things would I look at closely if I were a reviewer of this paper? Probably things like: is the claim of discovery of something fog-like convincingly made? Is the fog-like feature really at the surface rather than simply a cloud? Is our argument of how fog must form convincing? Is it correct? These were, at least, the things I thought hardest about as I was writing the paper. Perhaps you will find more!