The Sun’s Magnetic Field: Unveiling the Mystery

It’s coming back! Sunspot AR3664 gave us an amazing display of northern lights in mid-May and it’s now rotating back into view. That means another great display if this sunspot continues to flare out. It’s all part of solar maximum—the peak of an 11-year cycle of solar active and quiet times. This cycle is the result of something inside the Sun—the solar dynamo. A team of scientists suggests that this big generator lies not far beneath the solar surface. It creates a magnetic field and spurs flares and sunspots.
For a long time, solar physicists thought the magnetic dynamo was deep inside the Sun. That view may change thanks to work by researchers at MIT, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Colorado, Bates College, Northwestern University, and the University of California. The dynamo may be related to instabilities in what’s called the “near-surface shear layer” in the Sun’s outermost regions. The activities in this layer result in the flares and sunspots we see more of as the Sun nears “solar maximum”. Flares are high-energy outbursts while sunspots are surface features with local magnetic fields. Sunspots are relatively cool regions on the solar surface and occur in 11-year cycles.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured these images of the solar flares — as seen in the bright flashes in the upper right — on May 5 and May 6, 2024. The image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares and which is colorized in teal. The loops are magnetic field lines channeling plasma. Credit: NASA/SDO
“The features we see when looking at the Sun, like the corona that many people saw during the recent solar eclipse, sunspots, and solar flares, are all associated with the sun’s magnetic field,” said MIT researcher Keaton Burns. “We show that isolated perturbations near the sun’s surface, far from the deeper layers, can grow over time to potentially produce the magnetic structures we see.”
How is the Sun’s Magnetic Field Connected to Activity?
To understand the magnitude of this finding, let’s look at the structure of the Sun. We all know the Sun is a superheated ball of plasma. So, how does boiling plasma create a magnetic dynamo? “One of the basic ideas for how to start a dynamo is that you need a region where there’s a lot of plasma moving past other plasma and that shearing motion converts kinetic energy into magnetic energy,” Burns explained. “People had thought that the Sun’s magnetic field is created by the motions at the very bottom of the convection zone.”

The interior structure of our Sun. The dynamo generating a magnetic field could lie very close to the solar surface. Credit: Kelvin Ma, via Wikipedia
Of course, pinning down the exact location of the solar dynamo in the upper layers is difficult. Simulations can only go so far, and modeling the plasma flow throughout the entire Sun is a massive computing task. So, Burns and the team decided simulate a smaller piece of the Sun. They studied the stability of plasma flow near the solar surface. That required helioseismology data showing vibrations on the Sun’s surface, which allowed them to determine the average flow of plasma in that region. “If you take a video of a drum and watch how it vibrates in slow motion, you can work out the drumhead’s shape and stiffness from the vibrational modes,” said Burns. “Similarly, we can use vibrations that we see on the solar surface to infer the average structure on the inside.”
Think of the Sun as layered like an onion. Different plasma layers rush past each other as the Sun rotates, according to Burns. “Then we ask: Are there perturbations, or tiny changes in the flow of plasma, that we could superimpose on top of this average structure, that might grow to cause the sun’s magnetic field?”
Computing an Answer
The team developed algorithms that they incorporated into a numerical framework called the Dedalus Project. They looked for self-reinforcing changes in the Sun’s average surface flows. The algorithm discovered new patterns that could grow and result in realistic solar activity. Interestingly, those patterns also match the locations and timescales of sunspots. It turns out that certain changes in the flow of plasma at the very top of the Sun’s surface layers generate magnetic structures. This isn’t a new idea. Burns pointed out that the conditions there resembled the unstable plasma flows in accretion disks around black holes. Accretion disks are massive collections of gas and stellar dust that rotate in towards a black hole. They’re driven by “magnetorotational instability,” which generates turbulence in the flow and causes it to fall inward.
Burns and the team thought this phenomenon at a black hole might also be at work inside our Sun. They suggest that magnetorotational instability in the Sun’s outermost layers could be the first step in generating its magnetic field. “I think this result may be controversial,” he said. “Most of the community has been focused on finding dynamo action deep in the Sun. Now we’re showing there’s a different mechanism that seems to be a better match to observations.”
Implications of the New Model
Not only will the team’s work help solar physicists understand the creation of the magnetic dynamo, but may give them insight into other solar phenomena. In particular, a dynamo in the upper 10 percent of the Sun may explain things like the Maunder Minimum. This was a period between 1645 to 1715 when there were very few sunspots. In some years, observers saw no sunspots at all. In other years, they observed fewer than 20. Astronomers did chart the 11-year sunspot cycle through that time, so the Sun wasn’t entirely inactive.
If the Sun’s magnetic dynamo operates in its outermost layers, the science of solar activity forecasting could get a big boost. Right now, it’s difficult to tell when a flare might break out. Flares and coronal mass ejections like those that contributed to the May 10-11 geomagnetic storm can damage satellites and telecommunications systems here on Earth. In addition, power grids and other technology are at risk. In the long run, however, gaining new understanding of the Sun’s dynamo is a big deal.
“We know the dynamo acts like a giant clock with many complex interacting parts,” says co-author Geoffrey Vasil, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh. “But we don’t know many of the pieces or how they fit together. This new idea of how the solar dynamo starts is essential to understanding and predicting it.”
For More Information
The Origin of the Sun’s Magnetic Field Could Lie Close to Its SurfaceThe Solar Dynamo Begins Near the Surface