Violation of Richardson's criterion via introduction of a magnetic field

Daniel Lecoanet, Ellen G. Zweibel, Richard H.D. Townsend, Yi Min Huang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Shear flow instabilities can profoundly affect the diffusion of momentum in jets, stars, and disks. The Richardson criterion gives a sufficient condition for instability of a shear flow in a stratified medium. The velocity gradient V′ can only destabilize a stably stratified medium with squared Brunt-Väisälä frequency N 2 if V′2/ 4>N 2. We find this is no longer true when the medium is a magnetized plasma. We investigate the effect of stable stratification on the magnetic field and velocity profiles unstable to magneto-shear instabilities, i.e., instabilities which require the presence of both magnetic field and shear flow. We show that a family of profiles originally studied by Tatsuno & Dorland remains unstable even when V′2/4 < N 2, violating the Richardson criterion. However, not all magnetic fields can result in a violation of the Richardson criterion. We consider a class of flows originally considered by Kent, which are destabilized by a constant magnetic field, and show that they become stable when V′2/4 < N 2, as predicted by the Richardson criterion. This suggests that magnetic free energy is required to violate the Richardson criterion. This work implies that the Richardson criterion cannot be used when evaluating the ideal stability of a sheared, stably stratified, and magnetized plasma. We briefly discuss the implications for astrophysical systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1116-1128
Number of pages13
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Hydrodynamics
  • Instabilities
  • Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD)
  • Stars: magnetic field
  • Stars: rotation


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