Archive | 2021
Radiative Rayleigh-Taylor Instability and the structure of clouds in planetary atmospheres
Aims. Clouds are expected to form in a wide range of conditions in the atmosphere of exoplanets given the large range of possible condensible species. However this diversity might lead to very different small-scale dynamics depending on radiative transfer in various thermal conditions: we aim at providing some insights into these dynamical regimes. Methods. We perform an analytical linear stability analysis of a compositional discontinuity with a heating source term that depends on composition. We also perform idealized two-dimensional (2D) simulations of an opacity discontinuity in a stratified medium with the code ARK. We use a two-stream grey model for radiative transfer and explore the brown-dwarf and earth-like regimes. Results. We reveal the existence of a Radiative Rayleigh-Taylor Instability (RRTI hereafter, a particular case of diabatic RayleighTaylor instability) when an opacity discontinuity is present in a stratified medium. This instability is similar in nature to diabatic convection and relies only on buoyancy with radiative transfer heating and cooling. When the temperature is decreasing with height in the atmosphere, a lower-opacity medium on top of a higher-opacity medium is dynamically unstable while a higher-opacity medium on top of a lower-opacity medium is stable. This stability/instability behavior is reversed if the temperature is increasing with height. Conclusions. The existence of the RRTI could have important implications for the stability of the cloud cover of a wide range of planetary atmospheres. In our solar system, it could help explain the formation of mammatus cloud in Earth atmospheres and the existence of Venus cloud deck. Likewise, it suggests that stable and large scale cloud covers could be ubiquitous in strongly irradiated exoplanets but might be more patchy in low-irradiated or isolated objects like brown dwarfs and directly imaged exoplanets.