Simulating Titan’s methane cycle with the TitanWRF General Circulation Model


Observations provide increasing evidence of a methane hydrological cycle on Titan. Earth-based and Cassini-based monitoring has produced data on the seasonal variation in cloud activity and location, with clouds being observed at increasingly low latitudes as Titan moved out of southern summer. Lakes are observed at high latitudes, with far larger lakes and greater areal coverage in the northern hemisphere, where some shorelines extend down as far as 50°N. Rainfall at some point in the past is suggested by the pattern of flow features on the surface at the Huygens landing site, while recent rainfall is suggested by surface change. As with the water cycle on Earth, the methane cycle on Titan is both impacted by tropospheric dynamics and likely able to impact this circulation via feedbacks. Here we use the 3D TitanWRF General Circulation Model (GCM) to simulate Titan’s methane cycle. In this initial work we use a simple large-scale condensation scheme with latent heat feedbacks and a finite surface reservoir of methane, and focus on large-scale dynamical interactions between the atmospheric circulation and methane, and how these impact seasonal changes and the long term (steady state) behavior of the methane cycle. We note five major conclusions: (1) Condensation and precipitation in the model is sporadic in nature, with interannual variability in its timing and location, but tends to occur in association with both (a) frequent strong polar upwelling during spring and summer in each hemisphere, and (b) the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a region of increased convergence and upwelling due to the seasonally shifting Hadley cells. (2) An active tropospheric methane cycle affects the stratospheric circulation, slightly weakening the stratospheric superrotation produced. (3) Latent heating feedback strongly influences surface and near-surface temperatures, narrowing the latitudinal range of the ITCZ, and changing the distribution – and generally weakening the strength – of upwelling events. (4) TitanWRF favors low latitude ‘cloudiness’ around northern spring equinox as the ITCZ moves from south to north across the equator, versus the opposite time of year. (5) TitanWRF produces drying of low and mid latitudes with net transport of surface methane to high latitudes, and shows persistent hemispheric asymmetry in the methane cycle such that the favored pole for surface methane is the one with winter occurring closest to perihelion.