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date: 11 December 2019

Solar Chromosphere

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Physics. Please check back later for the full article.

The solar chromosphere (color sphere) is a strongly structured and highly dynamic region (layer) of the Sun’s atmosphere, located above the bright, visible photosphere. It is optically thin in the near-ultraviolet to near-infrared spectral range, but optically thick in the millimeter range and in strong spectral lines. Particularly important is the departure from the local thermodynamic equilibrium as one moves from the photosphere to the chromosphere. In a plane-parallel model, the temperature gradually rises from the low chromosphere outwards (radially from the center of the Sun), against the rapid decrease in both gas density and pressure with height throughout the entire solar atmosphere. In this classical picture, the chromosphere is sandwiched between the so-called temperature minimum (i.e., the minimum average temperature in the solar atmosphere; about 4000 K) and the hot transition region (with a few tens of thousands kelvin at its lower boundary), above which the temperature drastically increases outwards, reaching million degrees in the solar corona (i.e., the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere). In reality, however, this standard (simple) model does not properly account for the many faces of the non-uniform and dynamic chromosphere. For instance, there also exists extremely cool gas in this highly dynamical region.

A variety of heating mechanisms has been suggested to contribute in the energetics of the solar chromosphere. These particularly include propagating waves (of various kinds) often generated in the low photosphere, as well as jets, flares, and explosive events as a result of, for example, magnetic reconnection. However, observations of energy deposition in the chromosphere (particularly from waves) have been rare.

The solar chromosphere is dominated by the magnetic fields (where the gas density reduces by more than four orders of magnitude compared to the underlying photosphere; hence, magnetic pressure dominates that of gas) featuring a variety of phenomena including sunspots, plages, eruptions, and elongated structures of different physical properties and/or appearances. The latter have been given different names in the literature, such as fibrils, spicules, filaments, prominences, straws, mottle, surges, or rosette, within which, various sub-categories have also been introduced. Some of these thread-like structures share the same properties, some are speculated to represent the same or completely different phenomena at different atmospheric heights, and some manifest themselves differently in intensity images, depending on properties of the sampling spectral lines. Their origins and relationships to each other are poorly understood. The elongated structures have been suggested to map the magnetic fields in the solar chromosphere; however, that includes challenges of measuring/approximating the chromospheric magnetic fields (particularly in the quiet regions), as well as of estimating the exact heights of formation of the fibrillar structures.

The solar chromosphere may thus be described as a challenging, complex plasma-physics lab, in which many of the observed phenomena and physical processes have not yet been fully understood.