Fast Magnetic Reconnection

Let us start off by considering the *Sweet-Parker model*, which was first proposed
by Sweet (Sweet 1958) and
Parker (Parker 1957). The
main features of the envisioned magnetic and plasma flow
fields are illustrated in Figure 7.9. The system is two-dimensional and steady-state (i.e.,
and
). The reconnecting magnetic fields are anti-parallel,
and of equal strength,
. We imagine that these fields are
being forcibly
pushed together via the action of some external agency.
We expect a strong current sheet to form at the boundary between the
two fields, where the direction of
suddenly changes.
This current sheet is assumed to be of thickness
and length
.

Plasma is assumed to diffuse into the current layer, along its whole length, at some relatively small inflow velocity, . The plasma is accelerated along the layer, and eventually expelled from its two ends at some relatively large exit velocity, . The inflow velocity is simply an velocity, so

(7.225) |

The -component of Ohm's law yields

(7.226) |

Continuity of plasma flow inside the layer gives

(7.227) |

assuming incompressible flow. Finally, pressure balance along the length of the layer yields

(7.228) |

Here, we have balanced the magnetic pressure at the center of the layer against the dynamic pressure of the outflowing plasma at the ends of the layer. Note that and are the plasma resistivity and density, respectively.

We can measure the rate of reconnection via the inflow velocity, , because all of the magnetic field-lines that are convected into the layer, with the plasma, are eventually reconnected. The Alfvén velocity is written

(7.229) |

Likewise, we can write the Lundquist number of the plasma as

(7.230) |

where we have assumed that the length of the reconnecting layer, , is commensurate with the macroscopic lengthscale of the system. The reconnection rate is parameterized via the

(7.231) |

The previous equations can be rearranged to give

(7.232) |

In other words, the plasma is squirted out of the ends of the reconnecting layer at the Alfvén velocity. Furthermore,

(7.233) |

and

(7.234) |

We conclude that the reconnecting layer is extremely narrow, assuming that the Lundquist number of the plasma is very large. The magnetic reconnection takes place on the hybrid timescale , where is the Alfvén transit timescale across the plasma, and is the resistive diffusion timescale across the plasma.

The Sweet-Parker reconnection ansatz is undoubtedly correct. It has been simulated numerically many times, and was confirmed experimentally in the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX) operated by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) (Ji, Yamada, Hsu, and Kulsrud 1998). The problem is that Sweet-Parker reconnection takes place far too slowly to account for many reconnection processes that are thought to take place in the solar system. For instance, in solar flares , , and (Priest 1984). According to the Sweet-Parker model, magnetic energy is released to the plasma via reconnection on a typical timescale of a few tens of days. In reality, the energy is released in a few minutes to an hour (Priest 1984). Clearly, we can only hope to account for solar flares using a reconnection mechanism that operates far more rapidly than the Sweet-Parker mechanism.

One possible resolution of this problem was suggested by Petschek (Petschek 1964), who pointed out that magnetic energy can be converted into plasma thermal energy as a result of shock waves being set up in the plasma, in addition to the conversion due to the action of resistive diffusion. The configuration envisaged by Petschek is sketched in Figure 7.10. Two waves (slow mode shocks) stand in the flow on either side of the interface, where the direction of reverses, marking the boundaries of the plasma outflow regions. A small diffusion region still exists on the interface, but now constitutes a miniature (in length) Sweet-Parker system. The width of the reconnecting layer is given by

(7.235) |

just as in the Sweet-Parker model. However, we do not now assume that the length, , of the layer is comparable to the characteristic lengthscale, , of the system. Rather, the length may be considerably smaller than , and is determined self-consistently from the continuity condition

(7.236) |

where we have assumed incompressible flow, and an outflow speed of order the Alfvén speed, as before. Thus, if the inflow speed, , is much less than then the length of the reconnecting layer is much larger than its width, as assumed by Sweet and Parker. On the other hand, if we allow the inflow velocity to approach the Alfvén velocity then the layer shrinks in length, so that becomes comparable with .

It follows that for reasonably large reconnection rates (i.e., ) the length of the diffusion region becomes much smaller than the characteristic lengthscale of the system, , so that most of the plasma flowing into the boundary region does so across the standing waves, rather than through the central diffusion region. The angle that the shock waves make with the interface is given approximately by

(7.237) |

Thus, for small inflow speeds, the outflow is confined to a narrow wedge along the interface, but as the inflow speed increases, the angle of the outflow wedges increases to accommodate the increased flow.

It turns out that there is a maximum inflow speed beyond which Petschek-type solutions cease to exist. The corresponding maximum Alfvénic Mach number,

(7.238) |

can be regarded as specifying the maximum allowable rate of magnetic reconnection according to the Petschek model. Clearly, because the maximum reconnection rate depends inversely on the logarithm of the Lundquist number, rather than its square root, it is much larger than that predicted by the Sweet-Parker model.

It must be pointed out that the Petschek model is controversial. Many researchers think that it is incorrect, and that the maximum rate of magnetic reconnection allowed by resistive-MHD is that predicted by the Sweet-Parker model. In particular, Biskamp wrote an influential, and widely quoted, paper reporting the results of a numerical experiment that appeared to disprove the Petschek model (Biskamp 1986). When the plasma inflow exceeded that allowed by the Sweet-Parker model, there was no acceleration of the reconnection rate. Instead, magnetic flux ``piled up'' in front of the reconnecting layer, and the rate of reconnection never deviated significantly from that predicted by the Sweet-Parker model. Priest and Forbes later argued that Biskamp imposed boundary conditions in his numerical experiment, which precluded Petschek reconnection (Priest and Forbes 1992). Probably the most powerful argument against the validity of the Petschek model is the fact that, more than 50 years after it was first proposed, nobody has ever managed to simulate Petschek reconnection numerically (except by artificially increasing the resistivity in the reconnecting region--which is not a legitimate approach) (Yamada, Kulsrud, and Ji 2010).