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Magnetic Reconnection

Jörg Weingrill

June 5, 2003
1 Introduction
As we leave the three well known stages of matter solid, liquid and gas, we enter
the world of plasma. The whole universe beginning at the earth’s ionosphere
consists of plasma. If we heat up gas to a point where the atoms are split into
positive ions and electrons it becomes electrically conductive and allows current
flows within.
As we know on one hand electric currents cause a magnetic field and on the other
magnetic fields imply a force (called the Lorentz force) on charged particles.
The magnetohydrodynamics (abbrevated MHD) deals with interaction between
plasma and a magnetic field. A magnetic field causes several physical effects on
a plasma[1, chapter 2]:
• acceleration and creation of structures
• conversion of energy in e.g. solar flares
• thermal isolation
• instabilities and waves
The concept of magnetic reconnection was introduced by Giovanelli (1946).
The term was defined somehow lateron. Magnetic reconnection itself appears
in different length and time scales beginning at the solar corona and ending up
in active galactic nuclei.

2 Basic Equations
2.1 Maxwell’s equations
Electromagnetism as one part of MHD can be described by Maxwell’s equations:
∇×H = j+ , ∇B = 0 (1)
∇×E = − , ∇D = ρc (2)
And additionally:
B = µH, D = ²E (3)
Where H is the magnetic field, j the current density, D the electric displacement,
B the magnetic induction, E electric field and ρc the charge density. In addition
Ohm’s law using the conductivity σ may be written as:

E = j/σ (4)

The other part of MHD roots in general fluid dynamics, which are described by
the equations:
ρ = −∇p (5)

+ ρ∇v = 0 (6)
p = <ρT (7)

Here ρ is the plasma density and v its velocity vector. The plasma pressure
p is a function of the gas constant < and the temperature T as known from
the perfect gas law. Equation (5) explains that the sum of plasma movement
is equal to the sum of forces acting on the plasma. Equation (6) represents the
mass continuity.
Since the displacement current in eqn. (1) is negligible as no relativistic veloci-
ties are assumed in plasmas. By substituting H in eqn. (1) with eqn. (3) and
considering the Lorentz force (j × B) on plasmas we get:

j = ∇ × B/µ (8)
E = −v × B + j/σ (9)

2.2 The Induction equation

If we substitute j using Ampère’s law (8) and E using eqn. (2) we obtain the
∂B ∇ × (∇ × B)
= ∇ × (v × B) − , η = (µσ)−1 ⇒ (10)
∂t µσ
= ∇ × (v × B) + η∇2 B (11)
The last equation (11) is known as the induction equation. The constant η is
called magnetic diffusitivity. It explains the importance of the plasma velocity v
and its magnetic field B. The electric field E and the current flow j are secondary
and may be calculated by using eqn. (8) and (9).

2.3 The Reynolds number

The Reynolds number Rm describes the balance between the first and the second
term in eqn. (11):
∇ × (v × B) l0 V 0
Rm = 2
≈ (12)
η∇ B η
Where we introduce the typical plasma velocity V0 and length scale l0 . As
in fluid mechanics Rm shows whether the induction equation is governed by
diffusion or not. Usually Rm ≈ 109 can be assumed for the whole universe of
plasma physics, except in current sheets where Rm ≤ 1 so that the second term
in eqn. (11) becomes important. Also time scales τd = L2 /η and the speed of
diffusion vd = η/L are strictly connected to the Reynolds number.

2.4 Magnetic Flux Tubes

Flux tubes are cylindrical magnetic field topologies that can be described as[1]:

B = (0, Bφ (R), Bz (R)) (13)

µ ¶
dBz 1 d(RBφ )
j = 0, − , (14)
dR R dR
The twist or helicity is denoted by the parameter Φ
Φ= (15)

Usually the twist is a function of R the radius. Taking a pressure gradient from
the Lorentz force into account(∇p = j × B), we get:
à !
dp d Bφ2 + Bz2 Bφ2
+ + =0 (16)
dR dR 2µ µR

Flux tubes play an important role on the solar surface.

3 Magnetic Annihilation
As a current sheet diffuses away, magnetic energy is converted into ohmic heat.
If we assume a one-dimensional magnetic field:

∂B ∂2B
=η 2 (17)
∂t ∂x
with the initial conditions: B(x, 0) = B0 where x > 0 and B(−x, 0) = −B0 else
at t = 0. This differential equation is similar to the heat induction equation,
which states that heat flows from hot areas to cool ones. As the total magnetic
flux remains constant, the magnetic energy decreases in time. The loss of energy
results in ohmic heating. The field strength in the middle (x = 0) is cancelled,
but plasma cannot be destroyed, it has to flow out perpendicular. Reconsidering
Ohm’s law,
E = −v × B + η∇ × B (18)
it is obviously that E is directed in the z-direction. In case of a steady-state
flow E has to be constant. The magnetic field diffuses through the plasma in
the current sheet and is frozen in the plasma at the outside. Magnetic field
line conservation represents the fact that a plasma element will remain on the
same field line due to plasma movement. Similar the magnetic flux conservation
explains that the magnetic flux through a field remains constant as a moving
plasma changes the topology of this field.

4 Formation of current sheets

A current sheet is created between two magnetic fields with opposite polarity.[3,
chapter 9.1.2.] The current density J in a current sheet with half-thickness d is
given by Ampère’s law:
c cB
J= ∇×V ≈ (19)
4π 4πd
d≈ (20)
4πV⊥ σ
The electric fields inside and outside are given by Faraday’s law:

Ein = −(V × B)/c (21)

Eout = J/σ (22)

Current sheets can be formed by different effects:

4.1 X-type Collapse
Usually a magnetic field is in equilibrium between the magnetic pressure force
and magnetic tension force. If one force is larger in e.g. x-direction the other
one will be larger in y-direction. This will cause the X-type neutral point to

4.2 Driving source Motion

If the sources of a magnetic field move slowly together several current sheets
may be forced together and form out a new one. Such kind causes a realignment
of the magnetic field obviously.

5 Reconnection Models
According to the Anti-reconnection Theorem ”[a] steady 2D reconnection (with
plasma flow across separatices) is impossible if v ¿ vA everywhere (and viscosity
is negligible and magnetic diffusivity η is uniform).”[1, chapter 6.5] Therefor only
a fast reconnection process is possible.

5.1 Sweet - Parker Model (1958)

Figure 1: Sweet-Parker Model

A simple diffusion region is 2L in length and the distance between the op-
posing fields is 2l. We have an plasma inflow vi and a magnetic field Bi and an
outflow vo at Bo . The electric current is
j≈ (23)
and the resulting Lorentz force along the sheet is
Bi Bo
(j × B)x ≈ jBo = (24)
We get the solution

vo2 = i ≡ vAi

vA ≈ 2.03 · 1011B / ne cms−1 (26)

In other words, the plasma is accelerated to the Alfven speed. It is the maximum
velocity, a magnetic tension can travel through a magnetic field.
Compared to the inflow of kinetic energy, the inflow of electromagnetic energy is
much larger. Considering the flux conservation, the half of inflowing magnetic
energy is converted to magnetic energy. We see that magnetic reconnection
produces fast streams of hot plasma. If we take a look at the produced electrical
Ej = + vj × B (27)
we see that one part comes from ohmic heat, and the other from the Lorentz
Fast Reconnection in tiny Sweet-Parker diffusion regions is only possible, if the
reconnection rate (Me ) is sufficiently larger than the Sweet-Parker rate (Mi )
ve 1 η
Me = À Mi = √ = (28)
vAe Rmi Lv Ai

In eqn. (28) ve and vAe are the plasma and Alfvenic velocities at large (”exter-
nal”) distances from the X-point.
The Sweet-Parker model is a so called dissipative model. A finite conductiv-
ity is necessary to break the flux conservation and to reconnect the magnetic
flux tubes.[2, p. 1753] Typically exact solutions of MHD stagnation flows show
straight magnetic field lines and constant plasma conductivity in finite areas.
The magnetic field is dissipated within the current sheet. The thickness of the
current sheet usually grows with increasing inflow speed of the plasma, otherwise
a thin layer with resistive instabilities will result.

5.2 Petschek Model (1968)

This model assumes a large uniform B field and a small perturbation in the
inflow region. Also no current flow appears at the inflow. Slow-mode shocks
are used to explain the energy conversion. Shock waves are responsible for
acceleration and heating the plasma. 2/5 of the inflowing magnetic energy
is converted to ohmic heat and 3/5 is used for acceleration. The maximum
reconnection rate (Me∗ ) is
Me∗ ≈ ≈ 0.01 (29)
8 log Rme
The error of this estimation is small, since the variations of log Rme are obviously
small. The Petschek model is a so called non-linear ideal model.

5.3 Unified Theory of Fast Almost-Uniform Reconnection

(Priest and Forbes, 1986)
Numerical experiments were quite different as projected by the Petschek Model.
The interest lies in the variation of the reconnection rate as a function of
Mi .1 Proper solutions for the MHD equations (8) and (9)

ρ(v∇)v = −∇p + j × B (30)

1 see eqn. (28) for details

E+v×B = j/σ (31)
with ∇v = 0, ∇B = 0, j = ∇ × B/µ, E = const. have to be found. The solutions
are of the kind
B = B e + M e B 1 + . . . , v = M e v1 + . . . (33)
which include an expansion parameter Me ¿ 1 and represent an almost uniform
field. We ignore ∇p in eqn. (30) and j/σ in eqn. (31). With the introduction of a
new parameter b the Unified Theory adapts to several regimes: Compression and

b regime
b<0 slow compression
b=0 Petschek
0<b<1 hybrid expansion
b=1 Sonnerup-like
b>1 flux pile-up2

Table 1: regimes dependent on b parameter

Expansion affects the plasma pressure obviously. Slow-mode behavior changes

plasma pressure and field strength in contrary ways. Fast-mode behavior forces
an increase or a decrease for both pressure and magnetic field. The parameter
b is determined by the nature of inflow and outflow at the boundary.

5.4 Numerical Experiments

Since MHD simulations require the solution of differential equations, serveral
numerical experiments have been carried out. Most of them were calculated by
Biskamp, which showed serveral interesting features3 :
• the nature of the inflow varies from converging to diverging streamlines
• the inflow field lines may be highly curved and the shock angle large
• strong jets of plasma flowing out along the separatrices
• spikes of reversed current at the ends of the diffusion region
Most of them can be explained by Non-Uniform Models. In simulations R me is
assumed between 1700 and 6000, whereas Me is selected about 0.035 and 0.1
together with a proper b value to simulate different regimes.

5.5 Time-Dependent Non-Linear Reconnection Model (1983-

[2, p. 1755] To break up with steady-state models the restrictions of stationarity
and incompressibility have to be omitted. Petschek’s model is extended using a
time-varying local reconnection rate.
A slowly driven current sheet becomes unstable due to a local tangential electric
field caused by reconnection. The current sheet reacts by generating MHD waves
and dissipates. Also shear waves will be generated that travel with a definite
speed - the deHoffmann-Teller velocity.
3 see [1, p. 72]

5.6 Compressible Time-Dependent Reconnection Model
The non-linear reconnection model is extended with a given electric field. This
field may be variable in time in small areas. Also compressible MHD solutions
are taken into account, which are fully self-consistent and overcomes the neces-
sity of the boundary conditions that where introduced for the unified theory.
The local reconnection rate is related to the local instabilites. The electric
field pulse and the background conditions control the perturbation in the inflow

6 Coronal Heating
The solar coronal is a typical scenario of interacting magnetic fields and plasma.
The magnetic field lines have their roots in the photosphere. This is where the
energy is injected to the corona as a Poynting flux

S = E × B/µ = −(v × B) × B/µ (34)

The equilibrium of Energy is explained by Poynting’s theorem:

Z 2
∂ J
(E × H)dS = dV + dV + (vj × B)dV (35)
∂t 2µ σ
which shows that the inflowing electromagnetic energy is converted to magnetic
energy, ohmic heating and magnetic force. Stored energy may be released in a
flare or a prominence, dissipates and heats up the corona or accelerates plasma.

parameter size
length scale L = 1 · 108 m
time scale τ = 10L/vA ≈ 120s
magnetic field B = 100G
density n = 1015 m−3
conductivity σ = 106 Ω−1 m−1

Table 2: typical physical parameters in the corona

6.1 Type IV Bursts

[3, 8.4.2.] Type IV bursts where first identified 1957 by A. Bioschot and J.F.
Denisse. This kind of burst is caused by trapped electrons which show a gyroe-
mission less than three GHz. In this case reconnection is responsible for accel-
eration of the electrons. Type IV bursts are therefore associated with eruptive

6.2 X-ray bright points (XBP)

XBPs were discovered in the 1970s from rocket images. Their energy source
was assumed to be an emerging flux. Harvey (1984) showed that only two

out of three lie above ”cancelling magnetic features” (CMF). CMFs are pairs of
photospheric magnetic fragments, which approach and cancel themselves. There
are three phases in an XBP/CMF event:

1. Pre-interaction phase: A pair of oppositely directed magnetic fragments

become unconnected in the photosphere and start approaching. An over-
lying flux separates them. A null point is formed in the photosphere by

2. Interaction phase: The null point is lifted up and coronal reconnection

creates an x-ray bright point. Two reconnected and heated flux tubes are
separated into a small and a large loop

3. Cancellation phase: The fragments connect and are cancelled by photo-

spheric reconnection.

Figure 2: Converging Flux Model (taken from [7])

”The Coronal reconnection driven by footpoint motion that we have suggested in

the Converging Flux Model may also represent an elementary heating event that
could heat not just bright points but also coronal loops an, by flux interaction
at the edges of supergranule cells, even coronal holes: indeed the flows that are
driven by the process could also drive the solar wind.”[1, p. 80] Up to now a
proof for this model is still outstanding, though investigations had been carried

7 Solar Flares
Two phenomenons are often observed before flares: fast moving satellite sunspots
and new magnetic flux emerging through the photosphere. This may force a re-
arrangement of the magnetic structure and a storage of magnetic energy. Promi-
nences will be pushed up and become instable. Just before the main phase of a
large flare fieldlines start to break and reconnect. During the main phase of a
large flare, the ongoing reconnection creates hot X-ray loops with Hα ribbons
at their foot points. The null point rises up and carries hot plasma loops with
it. Magnetic reconnection in large flares releases the stored magnetic energy.
The trigger of an eruption is not the be certain, therefore numerical experiments
concentrate on reconnection of field lines and the role of foot point motions.

8 Magnetic reconnection in the Earth’s mag-

netic field
8.1 Reconnection at the bow shock
Depending on the interplanetary magnetic field magnetic reconnection may oc-
cur at the bow shock heading towards the sun. One prerquisite is the opposite
direction of both magnetic fields.
The subsolar magnetopause is located at
(2.44 · ME )2
r0 = (36)
8πnmp v 2

where r0 is the geocentric distance, ME the magnetic momentum of the Earth’s

dipole, n the solar wind density, mp the proton mass and v the solar wind
velocity. The Earth’s effective magnetic momentum is

ME0 = 1.38 · ME = 11.2 · 1025 Gcm3 (37)

8.2 Magnetic reconnection in the geotail

Magnetic reconnection in the Earth’s magnetosphere is a typical example of
three-dimensional reconnection.[5] All models discussed previously are based on
two-dimensional theories. The additional dimension should simplify the prob-
lem. However the easiest way to accomplish an extension is to convert points
into lines and lines into planes. A good example for this is the creation of the
plasmoid in the Earth’s magnetotail. Two magnetic neutral points are formed,
one x-type that is directed towards Earth and becomes a line which is parallel
to the geomagnetic equator. The second one is an o-type point in the center
of the plasmoid, which becomes a closed loop and initially connects with the
x-line because of the finite size of the magnetic field. An electric field on the
x-line is responsible for plasma transport inside the plasmoid and connection
of the field lines. Slight variations in the magnetic field modifiy the plasmoid
obviously and might lead to helical structures. It appears that reconnection
depends upon the perspective and is only comparable to classic models when
assuming a symmetric magnetic field.

Figure 3: Plasmoid in the Earth’s magnetotail (taken from [5])

Hesse and Schindler showed 1988 that a change in magnetic connectivity is cor-
related to the presence of an electric field. Both fields are parallel in the region
where ideal MHD breaks down. Magnetic reconnection in the magnetotail is

Figure 4: Three dimensional model of an plasmoid (taken from [5])

said to be a typical example of collisionless reconnection.

9 Magnetic reconnection in magnetars

As known from solar activities magnetic reconnection might explain the coronal
heating of Anomalous X-ray Pulsars (AXPs) and Soft Gamma-Ray Repeaters
(SGRs).[6] Very strong magnetic fields with B > 1015 G are responsible for the
high luminosity of X-ray flares. Magnetars are born in a supernova collapse
with an concurrent dynamo action. Several events like the X-ray flares show
the similarity to our sun. Large scale electrical currents within a neutron star
are maintained by magnetic stresses. Changes in the magnetic field can be
tracked down in pulse variations. Two effects are capable of producing flares on

• a sudden twist in the magnetic field caused by a crust fracture

• magnetospheric currents not longer in equilibrium with the magnetic fields
Both show up some kind of magnetic reconnection, which is responsible to re-
lease the magnetic energy. Because of the extreme environment e.g. the Alfven
velocity is just a fraction of the speed of light. The typical rise-time of a burst is
about 0.01 seconds. The reconnection is said to be relativistic and is no longer
comparable to standard models.

[1] J.G. Kirk, D.B. Melrose, E.R. Priest; Plasma Astrophysics; Springer 1994.

[2] M.F. Heyn; Theory of Reconnection Two Dimensions in: Adv. Space Res.
Vol 19. No. 12, pp. 1753-1761, (1997)

[3] A.O. Benz; Plasma Astrophysics; Kluwer 2002.

[4] A. Takeda, H. Hudson; A gorgeous coronal hole;
[5] J. Birn, M. Hesse, K. Schidler Theory of Magnetic Reconnection in Three
Dimensions in: Adv. Space Res. Vol 19. No. 12, pp. 1763-1771, (1997)

[6] M. Lyutikov; Explosive reconnection in magnetars; arXiv:astro-

ph/0303384v1 17 Mar 2003

[7] C.E. Parnell Coronal Heating by Reconnection in: Adv. Space Res. Vol 19.
No. 12, pp. 1853-1860, (1997)