Simulation of the magnetothermal instability

Ian J. Parrish, James McLellan Stone

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5 Scopus citations


In many magnetized, dilute astrophysical plasmas, thermal conduction occurs almost exclusively parallel to magnetic field lines. In this case, the usual stability criterion for convective stability, the Schwarzschild criterion, which depends on entropy gradients, is modified. In the magnetized long mean free path regime, instability occurs for small wavenumbers when (∂ P/∂ z) (∂ ln T/∂ z) > 0, which we refer to as the Balbus criterion. We refer to the convective-type instability that results as the magnetothermal instability (MTI). We use the equations of MHD with anisotropic electron heat conduction to numerically simulate the linear growth and nonlinear saturation of the MTI in plane-parallel atmospheres that are unstable according to the Balbus criterion. The linear growth rates measured from the simulations are in excellent agreement with the weak field dispersion relation. The addition of isotropic conduction, e.g. radiation, or strong magnetic fields can damp the growth of the MTI and affect the nonlinear regime. The instability saturates when the atmosphere becomes isothermal as the source of free energy is exhausted. By maintaining a fixed temperature difference between the top and bottom boundaries of the simulation domain, sustained convective turbulence can be driven. MTI-stable layers introduced by isotropic conduction are used to prevent the formation of unresolved, thermal boundary layers. We find that the largest component of the time-averaged heat flux is due to advective motions as opposed to the actual thermal conduction itself. Finally, we explore the implications of this instability for a variety of astrophysical systems, such as neutron stars, the hot intracluster medium of galaxy clusters, and the structure of radiatively inefficient accretion flows.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-82
Number of pages6
JournalAstrophysics and Space Science
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Jan 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Accretion
  • Accretion disks
  • Convection
  • Galaxy clusters
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Instabilities
  • MHD
  • Stars: neutron
  • Turbulence


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