Temperature fluctuations as a source of brown dwarf variability

Tyler D. Robinson, Mark S. Marley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


A number of brown dwarfs are now known to be variable with observed amplitudes as large as 10%-30% at some wavelengths. While spatial inhomogeneities in cloud coverage and thickness are likely responsible for much of the observed variability, it is possible that some of the variations arise from atmospheric temperature fluctuations instead of, or in addition to, clouds. To better understand the role that thermal variability might play we present a case study of brown dwarf variability using a newly developed one-dimensional, time-stepping model of atmospheric thermal structure. We focus on the effects of thermal perturbations, intentionally simplifying the problem through omission of clouds and atmospheric circulation. Model results demonstrate that thermal perturbations occurring deep in the atmosphere (at pressures greater than 10 bar) of a model T-dwarf can be communicated to the upper atmosphere through radiative heating via the windows in near-infrared water opacity. The response time depends on where in the atmosphere a thermal perturbation is introduced. We show that, for certain periodic perturbations, the emission spectrum can have complex time- and wavelength-dependent behaviors, including phase shifts in times of maximum flux observed at different wavelengths. Since different wavelengths probe different levels in the atmosphere, these variations track a wavelength-dependent set of radiative exchanges happening between different atmospheric levels as a perturbation evolves in time. We conclude that thermal - as well as cloud - fluctuations must be considered as possible contributors to the observed brown dwarf variability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number158
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 20 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • brown dwarfs
  • convection
  • radiation mechanisms: thermal
  • stars: atmospheres

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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