2.3 Solar wind and space weather

In the previous Section 2.2, I have already explained why the IMF that usually does not have major meridional components, may undergo substantial deflections leading to geoeffective Bz components that allow magnetic reconnection between the IMF and the Earth’s intrinsic field.

The action of potential reconnection is further enhanced by the pressure pulse from the compressed plasma. Rosenberg and Coleman Jr (1980Jump To The Next Citation Point) studied the behavior of Bz around sector boundaries extensively and explained it in terms of the ballerina model (see Figure 8View Image): At a sector boundary the current sheet must necessarily be inclined versus the ecliptic plane, implying the existence of non-zero Bz components. At the transitions from well within one sector (with Bz = 0) to well within the other sector (again with Bz = 0) the observer will see a Bz < 0 first and, after crossing the stream interface, Bz > 0. This applies for any sector crossing, positive to negative and vice versa, as long as the general dipole of the Sun maintains its orientation. Once the Sun’s dipole is reverted (around solar activity maximum), the sequence of Bz excursions is also reverted. This reversal was indeed confirmed (Rosenberg and Coleman Jr, 1980). The CIR scheme in Figure 10View Image illustrates that the density profile in the compression region (with its increased ram pressure) is very asymmetric with respect to the sector boundary. Thus it matters a lot on which side the Bz < 0 excursion occurs, be it on the low pressure side before the boundary or at the high pressure side behind it. This phase shift between Bz < 0 and the pressure pulse varies with the 22-year magnetic solar cycle and is superimposed on the well-known 11-year modulations. Indeed, there were some unexplained 22-year periodicities in geomagnetism reported by, e.g., Chernosky (1966) and Russell (1974).

There is another fundamentally different mechanisms causing geoeffective Bz south swings:

Solar wind high-speed streams are dominated by large-amplitude transverse Alfvénic fluctuations causing major excursions of both the proton flow and the IMF vector on time scales of minutes to hours (Belcher and Davis Jr, 1971), see also Marsch (1991) and Tu and Marsch (1995). They corotate with the Sun, often for several months. Once these high-speed streams reach the Earth, the occasional southward deflections of the IMF due to the Alfvén turbulence stir medium level geomagnetic activity (see Tsurutani and Gonzalez, 1987Jump To The Next Citation Point). Bartels (1932Jump To The Next Citation Point), had postulated “M-regions” on the Sun as sources of these geomagnetic effects. The close association between high-speed streams and M-regions had already been noted in the earliest solar wind observations from the Mariner 2 space probe in 1962 (Snyder et al., 1963, see also Schwenn, 1981Jump To The Next Citation Point). Tsurutani and Gonzalez (1987Jump To The Next Citation Point) and Tsurutani et al. (2004a) inspected the effects of high-speed streams on geomagnetism in terms of what they called “high-intensity long-duration continuous AE activity (HILDCAA) events” (Figure 11View Image). Remember that the compression and deflection of the plasma flow in the CIRs in front of high-speed streams may also lead to geomagnetic activity (Schwenn, 1981). It does not matter whether the steepening at the CIRs has already led to the formation of corotating shocks or shock pairs at the CIRs, a process which only rarely occurs inside the Earth’s orbit (see Schwenn, 1990).

View Image

Figure 11: The “high-intensity long-duration continuous AE activity (HILDCAA) event” of May 23 to 28, 1979, and the related Alfvén wave train within the high-speed solar wind stream. The excursions of the geomagnetic AE-index follow the Bz excursions in very much detail, with a time delay of about 100 minutes. Note that within the compression region in front of the stream the Bz component is also negative, and AE reacts similarly. The global Dst index is not affected. From Tsurutani and Gonzalez (1987).

The recurrence of this particular type of geomagnetic activity every 27 days, i.e., exactly in the rhythm of solar rotation, had led Bartels (1932Jump To The Next Citation Point) to postulate the existence of M-regions on the Sun already in the 1930s. He thought they were long-lived stable regions on the Sun which emit certain particles capable of stirring geomagnetism. After all, he was strikingly right except for one aspect: these M-regions are not to be sought in active regions on the Sun, as he thought, but rather in the inactive parts: the M-regions are associated with the coronal holes representative of the inactive Sun, and the geomagnetism is stirred by the streams of high-speed plasma (with their Alfvénic fluctuations) emanating from them.

A pretty illustration of the close relation between interplanetary magnetic field, coronal holes, solar wind streams and geomagnetic effects was given by Sheeley Jr and Harvey (1981Jump To The Next Citation Point), shown in Figure 12View Image. In the upper half, all patterns are rather regular products of the inactive Sun. Those data were from the three years before activity minimum in 1976. With the new activity rising from 1977 on, transient processes disturbed the regular stream pattern and caused sporadic strong geomagnetic storms: products of the active Sun. It is important in the context of space weather to always remember this distinction.

View Image

Figure 12: A 27-day Bartels display of IMF polarity, coronal hole occurrence (plus 3 days to allow for Sun–Earth transit time), solar wind speed at Earth, and geomagnetic disturbance index C9. A 27-day average sunspot number is indicated in the narrow strip on the extreme right. Coronal holes were counted only when they occurred within 400 of the solar equator. The color coding was chosen such that commonalities are best visible (for details see Sheeley Jr and Harvey, 1981).

  Go to previous page Go up Go to next page