Turbulence in the outer regions of protoplanetary disks. I. Weak accretion with no vertical magnetic flux

Jacob B. Simon, Xue Ning Bai, James McLellan Stone, Philip J. Armitage, Kris Beckwith

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93 Scopus citations


We use local numerical simulations to investigate the strength and nature of magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) turbulence in the outer regions of protoplanetary disks, where ambipolar diffusion is the dominant non-ideal MHD effect. The simulations include vertical stratification and assume zero net vertical magnetic flux. We employ a super time-stepping technique to ameliorate the Courant restriction on the diffusive time step. We find that in idealized stratified simulations, with a spatially constant ambipolar Elsasser number Am, turbulence driven by the magnetorotational instability (MRI) behaves in a similar manner as in prior unstratified calculations. Turbulence dies away for Am ≤ 1, and becomes progressively more vigorous as ambipolar diffusion is decreased. Near-ideal MHD behavior is recovered for Am ≥ 103. In the intermediate regime (10 ≤ Am ≤ 103) ambipolar diffusion leads to substantial increases in both the period of the MRI dynamo cycle and the characteristic scales of magnetic field structures. To quantify the impact of ambipolar physics on disk accretion, we run simulations at 30 AU and 100 AU that include a vertical Am profile based upon far-ultraviolet (FUV) ionized disk models. These models develop a vertically layered structure analogous to the Ohmic dead zone that is present at smaller radii. We find that, although the levels of surface turbulence can be strong (and consistent with constraints on turbulent line widths at these radii), the inferred accretion rates are at least an order of magnitude smaller than those observed in T Tauri stars. This discrepancy is very likely due to the assumption of zero vertical magnetic field in our simulations and suggests that vertical magnetic fields are essential for MRI-driven accretion in the outer regions of protoplanetary disks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number66
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • accretion, accretion disks
  • magnetohydrodynamics (MHD)
  • protoplanetary disks
  • turbulence


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