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Solar Dynamo  

Robert Cameron

The solar dynamo is the action of flows inside the Sun to maintain its magnetic field against Ohmic decay. On small scales the magnetic field is seen at the solar surface as a ubiquitous “salt-and-pepper” disorganized field that may be generated directly by the turbulent convection. On large scales, the magnetic field is remarkably organized, with an 11-year activity cycle. During each cycle the field emerging in each hemisphere has a specific East–West alignment (known as Hale’s law) that alternates from cycle to cycle, and a statistical tendency for a North-South alignment (Joy’s law). The polar fields reverse sign during the period of maximum activity of each cycle. The relevant flows for the large-scale dynamo are those of convection, the bulk rotation of the Sun, and motions driven by magnetic fields, as well as flows produced by the interaction of these. Particularly important are the Sun’s large-scale differential rotation (for example, the equator rotates faster than the poles), and small-scale helical motions resulting from the Coriolis force acting on convective motions or on the motions associated with buoyantly rising magnetic flux. These two types of motions result in a magnetic cycle. In one phase of the cycle, differential rotation winds up a poloidal magnetic field to produce a toroidal field. Subsequently, helical motions are thought to bend the toroidal field to create new poloidal magnetic flux that reverses and replaces the poloidal field that was present at the start of the cycle. It is now clear that both small- and large-scale dynamo action are in principle possible, and the challenge is to understand which combination of flows and driving mechanisms are responsible for the time-dependent magnetic fields seen on the Sun.

Article

Solar Cycle  

Lidia van Driel-Gesztelyi and Mathew J. Owens

The Sun’s magnetic field drives the solar wind and produces space weather. It also acts as the prototype for an understanding of other stars and their planetary environments. Plasma motions in the solar interior provide the dynamo action that generates the solar magnetic field. At the solar surface, this is evident as an approximately 11-year cycle in the number and position of visible sunspots. This solar cycle is manifest in virtually all observable solar parameters, from the occurrence of the smallest detected magnetic features on the Sun to the size of the bubble in interstellar space that is carved out by the solar wind. Moderate to severe space-weather effects show a strong solar cycle variation. However, it is a matter of debate whether extreme space-weather follows from the 11-year cycle. Each 11-year solar cycle is actually only half of a solar magnetic “Hale” cycle, with the configuration of the Sun’s large-scale magnetic field taking approximately 22 years to repeat. At the start of a new solar cycle, sunspots emerge at mid-latitude regions with an orientation that opposes the dominant large-scale field, leading to an erosion of the polar fields. As the cycle progresses, sunspots emerge at lower latitudes. Around solar maximum, the polar field polarity reverses, but the sunspot orientation remains the same, leading to a build-up of polar field strength that peaks at the start of the next cycle. Similar magnetic cyclicity has recently been inferred at other stars.

Article

Solar Flares  

Dana Longcope

A solar flare is a transient increase in solar brightness powered by the release of magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s corona. Flares are observed in all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. The released magnetic energy heats coronal plasma to temperatures exceeding ten million Kelvins, leading to a significant increase in solar brightness at X-ray and extreme ultraviolet wavelengths. The Sun’s overall brightness is normally low at these wavelengths, and a flare can increase it by two or more an orders of magnitude. The size of a given flare is traditionally characterized by its peak brightness in a soft X-ray wavelength. Flares occur with frequency inversely related to this measure of size, with those of greatest size occuring less than once per year. Images and light curves from different parts of the spectrum from many different flares have led to an accepted model framework for explaining the typical solar flare. According to this model, a sheet of electric current (a current sheet) is first formed in the corona, perhaps by a coronal mass ejection. Magnetic reconnection at this current sheet allows stored magnetic energy to be converted into bulk flow energy, heat, radiation, and a population of non-thermal electrons and ions. Some of this energy is transmitted downward to cooler layers, which are then evaporated (or ablated) upward to fill the coronal with hot dense plasma. Much of the flares bright emission comes from this newly heated plasma. Theoretical models have been proposed to describe each step in this process.