Clouds on Titan result from the condensation of methane and ethane and, as on other planets, are primarily structured by circulation of the atmosphere. At present, cloud activity mainly occurs in the southern (summer) hemisphere, arising near the pole and at mid-latitudes from cumulus updrafts triggered by surface heating and/or local methane sources, and at the north (winter) pole, resulting from the subsidence and condensation of ethane-rich air into the colder troposphere. General circulation models predict that this distribution should change with the seasons on a 15-year timescale, and that clouds should develop under certain circumstances at temperate latitudes (40??) in the winter hemisphere. The models, however, have hitherto been poorly constrained and their long-term predictions have not yet been observationally verified. Here we report that the global spatial cloud coverage on Titan is in general agreement with the models, confirming that cloud activity is mainly controlled by the global circulation. The non-detection of clouds at latitude 40??N and the persistence of the southern clouds while the southern summer is ending are, however, both contrary to predictions. This suggests that Titans equator-to-pole thermal contrast is overestimated in the models and that its atmosphere responds to the seasonal forcing with a greater inertia than expected. ?? 2009 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.
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Global circulation as the main source of cloud activity on Titan