The magnetohydrodynamic Kelvin-Helmholtz instability: A three-dimensional study of nonlinear evolution

Dongsu Ryu, T. W. Jones, Adam Frank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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We investigate through high-resolution three-dimensional simulations the nonlinear evolution of compressible magnetohydrodynamic flows subject to the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. As in our earlier work, we have considered periodic sections of flows that contain a thin, transonic shear layer but are otherwise uniform. The initially uniform magnetic field is parallel to the shear plane but oblique to the flow itself. We confirm in three-dimensional flows the conclusion from our two-dimensional work that even apparently weak magnetic fields embedded in Kelvin-Helmholtz unstable plasma flows can be fundamentally important to nonlinear evolution of the instability. In fact, that statement is strengthened in three dimensions by this work because it shows how field-line bundles can be stretched and twisted in three dimensions as the quasi-two-dimensional Cat's Eye vortex forms out of the hydrodynamical motions. In our simulations twisting of the field may increase the maximum field strength by more than a factor of 2 over the two-dimensional effect. If, by these developments, the Alfvén Mach number of flows around the Cat's Eye drops to unity or less, our simulations suggest that magnetic stresses will eventually destroy the Cat's Eye and cause the plasma flow to self-organize into a relatively smooth and apparently stable flow that retains memory of the original shear. For our flow configurations, the regime in three dimensions for such reorganization is 4 ≲ MAx ≲ 50, expressed in terms of the Alfvén Mach number of the original velocity transition and the initial Alfvén speed projected to the flow plan. When the initial field is stronger than this, the flow either is linearly stable (if MAx ≲ 2) or becomes stabilized by enhanced magnetic tension as a result of the corrugated field along the shear layer before the Cat's Eye forms (if MAx ≳ 2). For weaker fields the instability remains essentially hydrodynamic in early stages, and the Cat's Eye is destroyed by the hydrodynamic secondary instabilities of a three-dimensional nature. Then, the flows evolve into chaotic structures that approach decaying isotropic turbulence. In this stage, there is considerable enhancement to the magnetic energy due to stretching, twisting, and turbulent amplification, which is retained long afterward. The magnetic energy eventually catches up to the kinetic energy, and the nature of flows becomes magnetohydrodynamic. Decay of the magnetohydrodynamic turbulence is enhanced by dissipation accompanying magnetic reconnection. Hence, in three dimensions as in two dimensions, very weak fields do not modify substantially the character of the flow evolution but do increase global dissipation rates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)475-493
Number of pages19
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 PART 1
StatePublished - Dec 10 2000


  • Instabilities
  • MHD
  • Methods: numerical
  • Plasmas
  • Turbulence

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