Atmospheric Dynamics of Terrestrial Planets

Read, P. L.; Lewis, S. R. and Vallis, G. K. (2018). Atmospheric Dynamics of Terrestrial Planets. In: Deeg, H. and Belmonte, J. eds. Handbook of Exoplanets. Cham: Springer, pp. 1–31.



The solar system presents us with a number of planetary bodies with shallow atmospheres that are sufficiently Earth-like in their form and structure to be termed “terrestrial.” These atmospheres have much in common, in having circulations that are driven primarily by heating from the Sun and radiative cooling to space, which vary markedly with latitude. The principal response to this forcing is typically in the form of a (roughly zonally symmetric) meridional overturning that transports heat vertically upward and in latitude. But even within the solar system, these planets exhibit many differences in the types of large-scale waves and instabilities that also contribute substantially to determining their respective climates. Here we argue that the study of simplified models (either numerical simulations or laboratory experiments) provides considerable insights into the likely roles of planetary size, rotation, thermal stratification, and other factors in determining the styles of global circulation and dominant waves and instability processes. We discuss the importance of a number of key dimensionless parameters, for example, the thermal Rossby and the Burger numbers as well as nondimensional measures of the frictional or radiative timescales, in defining the type of circulation regime to be expected in a prototypical planetary atmosphere subject to axisymmetric driving. These considerations help to place each of the solar system terrestrial planets into an appropriate dynamical context and also lay the foundations for predicting and understanding the climate and circulation regimes of (as yet undiscovered) Earth-like extrasolar planets. However, as recent discoveries of “super-Earth” planets around some nearby stars are beginning to reveal, this parameter space is likely to be incomplete, and other factors, such as the possibility of tidally locked rotation and tidal forcing, may also need to be taken into account for some classes of extrasolar planet.

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