Climate zones on Pluto and Charon

R. P. Binzel, A. M. Earle, M. W. Buie, L. A. Young, S. A. Stern, C. B. Olkin, K. Ennico, J. M. Moore, W. Grundy, H. A. Weaver, C. M. Lisse, and T. R. Lauer. Icarus 287, 30 (2017).


We give an explanatory description of the unusual ;climate zones; on Pluto that arise from its high obliquity (mean 115°) and high amplitude (±12°) of obliquity oscillation over a 2.8 million year period. The zones we describe have astronomically defined boundaries and do not incorporate atmospheric circulation. For such a high mean obliquity, the lines of tropics (greatest latitudes where the Sun can be overhead) cycle closer to each pole than does each arctic circle, which in turn cycle nearly to the equator. As a consequence in an astronomical context, Pluto is more predominantly ;tropical; than ;arctic.; Up to 97% of Pluto's surface area can experience overhead Sun when the obliquity cycle is at its minimum of 103°. At this same obliquity phase (most recently occurring 0.8 Myr ago), 78% of Pluto's surface experienced prolonged intervals without sunlight or ;arctic winter; (and corresponding ;arctic summer;). The intersection of these climate zones implies that a very broad range of Pluto's latitudes (spanning 13-77° in each hemisphere; 75% of the total surface area) are both tropical and arctic. While some possible correlations to these climate zones are suggested by comparison with published maps of Pluto and Charon yielded by the New Horizons mission, in this work we present a non-physical descriptive analysis only. For example, the planet-wide dark equatorial band presented by Stern et al. (2015; Science, 350, 292-299) corresponds to Pluto's permanent ;diurnal zone.; In this zone spanning latitudes within ±13° of the equator, day-night cycles occur each Pluto rotation (6.4 days) such that neither ;arctic winter; nor ;arctic summer; has been experienced in this zone for at least 20 million years. The stability of this and other climate zones may extend over several Gyr. Temperature modeling shows that the continuity of diurnal cycles in this region may be the key factor enabling a long-term stability for the high albedo contrast between Tombaugh Regio adjacent to the dark Cthulhu Regio (Earle et al. (2017) Icarus, special issue, submitted). (All names are informal.) Charon's synchronous alignment with Pluto dictates that both bodies in the binary pair have the same climate zone structure, but any effects on Charon's morphology may be limited if volatile transport there is minimal or absent. Cold-trapped methane-rich volatiles on top of its water ice surface may be responsible for forming Charon's dark red north polar cap (Grundy et al., 2016b), and we note the most concentrated area of this feature resides almost entirely within the permanent ;polar zone; (above 77° latitude) where the Sun never reaches the overhead point and arctic seasons have been most consistently experienced over at least tens of millions of years. Pluto is not alone among bodies in the Kuiper belt (and uranian satellites) in having high obliquities, overlapping tropical and arctic zones, and latitude bands that remain in a continuous diurnal cycle over long terms.

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