benard convection


The icy plain of Sputnik Planum, located in Pluto’s heart-shaped Tombaugh Reggio, is criss-crossed with troughs that divide the plain into polygons.  The current interpretation of these features is that they are the result of thermal convection. As with Rayleigh-Benard convection cells on Earth, the interior of the polygons is formed by the upwelling of warmer, buoyant material, and the troughs between cells mark locations where cooled material convects back into the mantle. On Pluto, these cells consist of nitrogen ice (and occasional water ice like the dirty black chunk seen in the upper right photo) that slowly rises and sinks from the planet’s surface, constantly refreshing the surface features. This would explain why Sputnik Planum is missing evidence of typical older features like impact craters. (Image credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI)

Join FYFD all this week for a look at fluid dynamics and planetary science on Pluto! Check out the previous posts here.


Human eyesight is not always the best for observing how nature behaves around us. Fortunately, we’ve developed cameras and sensors that allow us to effectively see in wavelengths beyond those of visible light. What’s shown here is a frying pan with a thin layer of cooking oil. To the human eye, this would be nothing special, but in the infrared, we can see Rayeigh-Benard convection cells as they form. This instability is a function of the temperature gradient across the oil layer, gravity, and surface tension. As the oil near the bottom of the pan heats up, its density decreases and buoyancy causes it to rise to the surface while cooler oil sinks to replace it. Here the center of the cells is the hot rising oil and the edges are the cooler sinking fluid. The convection cells are reasonably stable when the pan is moved, but, even if they are obscured, they will reform very quickly.  (Video credit: C. Xie)