The magnetohydrodynamic kelvin-helmholtz instability: A two-dimensional numerical study

Adam Frank, T. W. Jones, Dongsu Ryu, Joseph B. Gaalaas

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119 Scopus citations


We have carried out two-dimensional simulations of the nonlinear evolution of unstable sheared magnetohydrodynamic flows. These calculations extend the earlier work of Miura (1984) and consider periodic sections of flows containing aligned magnetic fields. Two equal density, compressible fluids are separated by a shear layer with a hyperbolic tangent velocity profile. We considered two cases: a strong magnetic field (Alfvén Mach number, MA = 2.5) and a weak field (MA = 5). Each flow rapidly evolves until it reaches a nearly steady condition, which is fundamentally different from the analogous gas-dynamic state. Both MHD flows relax to a stable, laminar flow on timescales less than or of the order of 15 linear growth times, measured from saturation of the instability. That timescale is several orders of magnitude less than the nominal dissipation time for these simulated flows, so this condition represents an quasi-steady relaxed state analogous to the long-lived single vortex, known as "Kelvin's Cat's Eye," formed in two-dimensional nearly ideal gasdynamic simulations of a vortex sheet. The strong magnetic field case reaches saturation as magnetic tension in the displaced flow boundary becomes sufficient to stabilize it. That flow then relaxes in a straightforward way to the steady, laminar flow condition. The weak magnetic field case, on the other hand, begins development of the vortex expected for gasdynamics, but that vortex is destroyed by magnetic stresses that locally become strong. Magnetic topologies lead to reconnection and dynamical alignment between magnetic and velocity fields. Together these processes produce a sequence of intermittent vortices and subsequent relaxation to a nearly laminar flow condition in which the magnetic cross helicity is nearly maximized. Remaining irregularities show several interesting properties. A pair of magnetic flux tubes are formed that straddle the boundary between the oppositely moving fluids. Velocity and magnetic fluctuations within those features are closely aligned, representing Alfvén waves propagating locally downstream. The flux tubes surround a low-density channel of hot gas that contains most of the excess entropy generated through the relaxation process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)777-793
Number of pages17
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2 PART I
StatePublished - 1996


  • Instabilities
  • MHD
  • Methods: Numerical
  • Turbulence


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