115. Revealing the dynamic & magnetic nature of chromospheric vortices

Author: Juie Shetye* and Erwin Verwichte at the University of Warwick
(*now at New Mexico State University).

<< previous nuggetnext nugget >>


Rotational motion is prevalent in nature, from maelstroms in rivers, airplane turbulence, to weather tornadoes and cyclones. In the universe, we find rotation in the vortices of Jupiter’s atmosphere, in accretion disks of stars and in spiral galaxies. The constant motions of the Sun’s surface creates giant tornadoes in the solar chromosphere. The tornadoes are a few thousand kilometers in diameter, and like their namesakes on Earth they carry mass and energy high up into the atmosphere. They are therefore keenly studied as energy channels to explain the extraordinary heating of the solar corona. The main building block of solar tornadoes are tangled magnetic fields. However, it is notoriously difficult to measure the magnetic field in the Sun’s chromosphere. We present our recent efforts in observing the dynamics and magnetic field of chromosphere vortices, also known as swirls [1].

The solar chromosphere is a dynamic and inhomogeneous layer where the plasma-β varies from larger to much smaller than unity within only a few megameters. Such inhomogeneity results in a combination of physical processes threaded by magnetic fields that give rise to a plethora of structures in the chromosphere. Rotating, braiding and twisting of the magnetic field anchored in the photosphere’s granular velocity field gives rise to swirling structures. The first of these structures were reported as early as 1908 [2]. Since their discovery, their potential for efficiently transferring mass and energy across the solar atmosphere has been recognized [3,4]. They may provide continuous coronal heating, especially if they appear in sufficiently large numbers. Numerical simulations show that, individually, they have an estimated net positive Poynting flux of 440 Wm-2, more than adequate to heat the quiet Sun corona. However, this is observationally unverified [5].

We present our recent efforts to observe chromospheric swirls. We use ground-based observations from the CRISP instrument on the Swedish Solar Telescope [6], and from the IBIS instrument on the Dunn Solar Telescope [7]. We focus on observation channels centred on the chromospheric spectral lines Ca II and Hα. In those channels, swirls appear as temporary bright circular or spiral structures (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1.Snapshot of swirls in Hα 6563 Å, Ca ii 8542.11 Å, Stokes–V of Fe 6302 Å, and Doppler difference images constructed in Ca ii 8542 Å. Blue cross shows the centre of the swirl.

Multi-channel observations of swirls

The Ca II and Hα spectral lines are formed at different temperatures and densities in the solar atmosphere. Thus comparing the appearance, morphology, dynamics and associated plasma parameters between both channels sheds light on the swirl’s vertical structure (see 5 out of 13 examples shown in Fig 1). Traditionally, such swirls have been observed in Ca II only. We have chosen to classify chromospheric swirls according to whether they appear above a single or multiple magnetic concentrations (MCs) located in the intergranular lanes in the photosphere. MCs are visible in Fe I Stokes-V at least five minutes before the appearance of a swirl and undergo morphological and dynamic changes in precursor and during the appearance of a swirl. In some cases the morphology of MCs transforms from stretched and fractured to circular and compact. Several minutes after this transition, a chromospheric swirl appears with a central brightening in Ca II and Hα, followed by a bright circular ring at these wavelengths. The typical time delay and the formation height of Ca II of 1500 km or less, suggests a travel speed of around 10 km s-1. This is comparable with the typical value of the Alfvén speed in the chromosphere (Fig 2 shows a simplified cartoon for the scenario).

Figure 2. Simplified physical scenario corresponding to the appearance of the swirl.

Signatures of acoustic oscillations in swirls

We wish to elucidate the role swirls play in generating and modifying chromospheric acoustic oscillations [5]. Superimposed on the swirl pattern are periodic variations in intensity with a typical period of 180 s, consistent with three-minute chromospheric acoustic oscillations. We have discovered that during the occurrence of the swirl the acoustic oscillation is temporarily altered, i.e. reduced in period to 150 s and with an increased or decreased local intensity. A change of period may be due to a change in the acoustic cavity dimensions, additional magnetic effects, or due to an increase in temperature. If we assume that this change is solely due to temperature, based on the period change, we estimate an upper limit of the temperature increase of 44%.

Phase analysis between the signals in the wings and in the core of the Ca II line show that the blue wing precedes the line core, which in turn precedes the red wing. This pattern is always present and is not altered by the appearance of the swirl. The absence of half-period oscillations in the line-core compared with the wings suggests that the velocity time series is not sinusoidal, but rather asymmetric. This seems consistent with the physical picture of three-minute acoustic waves forming shocks below the formation height of Ca II around 1500 km. The phase relations are more complex in Hα, which is perturbed during the appearance of some of the swirls. Forward-modelling of line-formation in simulations of swirls in the presence of acoustic waves would be needed to establish the exact physical picture.

Figure 3. Magnitudes of the continuous wavelet transform (CWT) and cross-wavelet transform (XWT) for time-series constructed over the FOV of Swirl 1, representing chromospheric oscillations before, during and after the swirl. Row 1: CWT plot in Ca II line core and ± 0.11 Å wings showing power concentrated at the location of the swirl. Row 2: CWT plot for Hα line core, and ± 0.26 Å wings. The cone of influence that covers edge effects is over-plotted in solid-black lines. Significance levels (%) for the CWT plots are shown by the colour bar at the bottom of the CWT plots. Row 3: XWT plots showing correlation between Ca II wings at ± 0.11 Å, (first panel), between -0.11 Å and Ca II line core (second panel), between Ca II line core and +0.11 Å (third panel). Row 4: XWT plots showing correlation between Hα wings at ± 0.26 Å (first panel), -0.26 Å and Hα line core (second panel), and Hα line core, and +0.26 Å. The colour bar below the plots show correlation power. The Red box in the first panel indicates the time interval when the swirl appears.

Chromospheric magnetic signature of vortices

In collaboration with colleagues from Italy, we have revealed for the first time the magnetic nature of a chromospheric swirl using spectropolarimetry in the Ca II line using observation with IBIS at the DST. Those observations show two long-lived vortices (swirls) that each rotate clockwise inside a 10 arcsec2 quiet-Sun region. For both vortices we have extracted the circular and linear polarisation signals. The circular polarization signals are 5-10 times above the noise level. These signals provide information about the nature of the magnetic field in vortices in the chromosphere. This marks the first time such a measurement has been achieved for vortices. Importantly, the vortices have oppositely signed circular polarisation, which indicates that they have opposite magnetic flux. A combination of maps of the Doppler velocity, plane-of-sky optical flow field, line core intensity point and MHD modelling all point to the physical picture where the two vortices form a magnetic dipole. Due to the inherent bipolar nature of the magnetic field it may be expected that some of the magnetic flux of vortices connects locally and may not reach the solar corona. As such, this needs to be taken into account when estimating energy fluxes from photospheric vorticity fields.

Figure 4. Time-average chromospheric CP (left) and LP maps (right) in Ca II.

Real or apparent rotation?

In our SST study we measure a rotational pattern corresponding to speeds of several tens of km/s. This is consistent with previous reports [8]. However, the optical flow analysis of the two vortices in the DST dataset shows that the rotation is in fact much lower with speeds consistent with the rotation rates observed in photospheric vortices [9]. Near their centres the two structures rotate as a rigid body. We find that the fast rotation seen in Ca II intensity is in fact only apparent. For the fastest vortex, a spatial Fourier analysis reveals the presence of a five-minute acoustic wave mode with a clear azimuthal pattern corresponding to clockwise phase propagation (|m|=1). In other words we observe a slow magnetoacoustic kink mode. We do not observe motion of mass but rather the projected propagation of wave phase. In general, chromospheric vortices may exhibit a superposition of fast rotational phase patterns due to MHD waves on top of a slower motion due to actual rotation [10,11]. Careful wave-analysis will be essential to distinguish steady rotation, wave phase speed and wave amplitude to obtain accurate measurements of the Poynting flux into the solar corona from MHD waves associated with vortices.

This work is published in:


  • [1] Klimchuk 2006, Sol. Phys. 234, 41
  • [2] Hale, G. E. 1908a, ApJ 28, 315
  • [3] Parker 1972, ApJ 174, 499
  • [4] Wedemeyer, et al. 2012, Nature 486, 505
  • [5] Kitiashvili, I. N. et al. 2011
  • [6] Scharmer, G. B., Narayan, G., Hillberg, T., et al. 2008, ApJL 689, L69
  • [7] Cavallini, F. 2006, Sol. Phys. 236, 415
  • [8] Wedemeyer-Böhm, S., & Rouppe van der Voort, L. 2009, A&A 507, L9
  • [9] Bonet, J. A., et al 2008, ApJL 687, L131
  • [10] Tziotziou, K., Tsiropoula, G., & Kontogiannis, I. 2019, A&A 623, A160
  • [11] Shetye et al. 2019, ApJ 881, 83