Influence of orbital precession on the polar methane accumulation on Titan

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Junjun Liu, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States and Tapio Schneider, ETH Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Data collected by Cassini Spacecraft indicate that lakes on Titan are primarily found in the polar regions, preferentially in the north. It has been suggested that the hemispherical asymmetry in lake distribution is related to Saturn’s orbital precession, which changes the seasonal distribution of solar radiation on Titan, but not the annual mean (Aharonson et al., 2009; Schneider et al., 2012). Saturn’s current longitude of perihelion is near northern winter solstice. Hence, the northern summer on Titan is longer and less intense than the southern summer. The longer northern summer leads to greater net precipitation in the annual mean and the methane accumulation over the northern polar region (Schneider et al. 2012). Saturn’s perihelion precesses over an approximately 45-kyr period, so the solar radiation at the top of Titan’s atmosphere varies on this time scale. Here we investigate how the orbital precession influences the polar methane accumulation with a three-dimensional atmospheric model coupled to a dynamic surface reservoir of methane (Schneider et al. 2012). We find that methane accumulation is closely tied to Saturn’s orbital precession. At the time when Saturn’s longitude of perihelion is 180 degree away from the present day value, methane is mainly accumulated in the southern polar region due to the stronger annual-mean precipitation there induced by the longer southern summer. The annual-mean evaporation is largely unchanged with orbital precession, since it scales with the annual-mean insolation, which does not change under orbital precession. When Saturn’s longitude of perihelion is close to equinox, methane is approximately evenly distributed in the northern and southern polar regions, and the lake dichotomy disappears. The timescale of methane redistribution from one pole to the other is short compared with the timescale of orbital precession, so the surface methane distribution can be viewed as being approximately in equilibrium with the solar forcing at any given historic time. These results indicate that the methane lake distribution on Titan likely varies over an approximately 45 Kyr time scale.