Magnetic flux concentration and zonal flows in magnetorotational instability turbulence

Xue Ning Bai, James McLellan Stone

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Accretion disks are likely threaded by external vertical magnetic flux, which enhances the level of turbulence via the magnetorotational instability (MRI). Using shearing-box simulations, we find that such external magnetic flux also strongly enhances the amplitude of banded radial density variations known as zonal flows. Moreover, we report that vertical magnetic flux is strongly concentrated toward low-density regions of the zonal flow. Mean vertical magnetic field can be more than doubled in low-density regions, and reduced to nearly zero in high-density regions in some cases. In ideal MHD, the scale on which magnetic flux concentrates can reach a few disk scale heights. In the non-ideal MHD regime with strong ambipolar diffusion, magnetic flux is concentrated into thin axisymmetric shells at some enhanced level, whose size is typically less than half a scale height. We show that magnetic flux concentration is closely related to the fact that the turbulent diffusivity of the MRI turbulence is anisotropic. In addition to a conventional Ohmic-like turbulent resistivity, we find that there is a correlation between the vertical velocity and horizontal magnetic field fluctuations that produces a mean electric field that acts to anti-diffuse the vertical magnetic flux. The anisotropic turbulent diffusivity has analogies to the Hall effect, and may have important implications for magnetic flux transport in accretion disks. The physical origin of magnetic flux concentration may be related to the development of channel flows followed by magnetic reconnection, which acts to decrease the mass-to-flux ratio in localized regions. The association of enhanced zonal flows with magnetic flux concentration may lead to global pressure bumps in protoplanetary disks that helps trap dust particles and facilitates planet formation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number31
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 20 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • accretion, accretion disks - instabilities - magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) - methods
  • numerical - protoplanetary disks - turbulence


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