Saturation of the magnetorotational instability in the unstratified shearing box with zero net flux: Convergence in taller boxes

Ji Ming Shi, James McLellan Stone, Chelsea X. Huang

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Previous studies of the non-linear regime of the magnetorotational instability in one particular type of shearing box model - unstratified with no net magnetic flux - find that without explicit dissipation (viscosity and resistivity) the saturation amplitude decreases with increasing numerical resolution. We show that this result is strongly dependent on the vertical aspect ratio of the computational domain Lz/Lx. When Lz/Lx ≲ 1, we recover previous results. However when the vertical domain is extended Lz/Lx ≳ 2.5, we find the saturation level of the stress is greatly increased (giving a ratio of stress to pressure α ≳ 0.1), and moreover the results are independent of numerical resolution. Consistent with previous results, we find that saturation of the magnetorotational (MRI) in this regime is controlled by a cyclic dynamo which generates patches of strong toroidal field that switches sign on scales of Lx in the vertical direction. We speculate that when Lz/Lx ≲ 1, the dynamo is inhibited by the small size of the vertical domain, leading to the puzzling dependence of saturation amplitude on resolution. We show that previous toy models developed to explain the MRI dynamo are consistent with our results and that the cyclic pattern of toroidal fields observed in stratified shearing box simulations (leading to the so-called butterfly diagram) may also be related. In tall boxes the saturation amplitude is insensitive to whether or not explicit dissipation is included in the calculations at least for large magnetic Reynolds and Prandtl number. Finally, we show MRI turbulence in tall domains has a smaller critical Pmc, and an extended lifetime compared to Lz/Lx ≲ 1 boxes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2273-2289
Number of pages17
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Accretion, accretion discs
  • Dynamo
  • Instabilities
  • MHD
  • Methods: numerical
  • Turbulence


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