Space Science Reviews

, Volume 94, Issue 1–2, pp 99–112 | Cite as

Physical Causes of Solar Activity

  • N.O. Weiss
  • S.M. Tobias


The magnetic fields that dominate the structure of the Sun's atmosphere are controlled by processes in the solar interior, which cannot be directly observed. Magnetic activity is found in all stars with deep convective envelopes: young and rapidly rotating stars are very active but cyclic activity only appears in slow rotators. The Sun's 11-year activity cycle corresponds to a 22-year magnetic cycle, since the sunspot fields (which are antisymmetric about the equator) reverse at each minimum. The record of magnetic activity is aperiodic and is interrupted by episodes of reduced activity, such as the Maunder Minimum in the seventeenth century, when sunspots almost completely disappeared. The proxy record from cosmogenic isotopes shows that similar grand minima recur at intervals of around 200 yr. The Sun's large-scale field is generated by dynamo action rather than by an oscillator. Systematic magnetic cycles are apparently produced by a dynamo located in a region of weak convective overshoot at the base of the convection zone, where there are strong radial gradients in the angular velocity Ω. The crucial parameter (the dynamo number) increases with increasing Ω and kinematic (linear) theory shows that dynamo action can set in at an oscillatory (Hopf) bifurcation that is probably subcritical. Although it has been demonstrated that the whole process works in a self-consistent model, most calculations have relied on mean-field dynamo theory. This approach is physically plausible but can only be justified under conditions that do not apply in the Sun. Still, mean-field dynamos do reproduce the butterfly diagram and other key features of the solar cycle. An alternative approach is to study generic behaviour in low-order models, which exhibit two forms of modulation, associated with symmetry-breaking and with reduced activity. Comparison with observed behaviour suggests that modulation of the solar cycle is indeed chaotic, i.e. deterministically rather than stochastically driven.


Solar Cycle Magnetic Activity Proxy Record Maunder Minimum Magnetic Cycle 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • N.O. Weiss
    • 1
  • S.M. Tobias
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical PhysicsUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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