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Ionospheric control of magnetotail reconnection

Science  11 Jul 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6193, pp. 184-187
DOI: 10.1126/science.1252907

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How the ionosphere gains influence

In Earth's upper atmosphere, the reconnection of magnetic field lines converts latent magnetic energy into the thermal and kinetic energy of plasma flows. But reconnection appears to produce faster flows before midnight compared with after. To find out why, Lotko et al. simulated this energy exchange. Challenging common assumptions about our space weather environment, they conclude that the ionosphere plays an active role when coupled to the magnetosphere in driving the behavior of the magnetotail.

Science, this issue p. 184

Abstract

Observed distributions of high-speed plasma flows at distances of 10 to 30 Earth radii (RE) in Earth’s magnetotail neutral sheet are highly skewed toward the premidnight sector. The flows are a product of the magnetic reconnection process that converts magnetic energy stored in the magnetotail into plasma kinetic and thermal energy. We show, using global numerical simulations, that the electrodynamic interaction between Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere produces an asymmetry consistent with observed distributions in nightside reconnection and plasmasheet flows and in accompanying ionospheric convection. The primary causal agent is the meridional gradient in the ionospheric Hall conductance which, through the Cowling effect, regulates the distribution of electrical currents flowing within and between the ionosphere and magnetotail.

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