Dong Wang1,2, Rui Liu1, Yuming Wang1, Kai Liu1, Jun Chen1, Jiajia Liu1, Zhenjun Zhou1, & Min Zhang2
1 CAS Key Laboratory of Geospace Environment, Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences, University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei 230026, China
2 Department of Mathematics and Physics, Anhui Jianzhu University, Hefei 230601, China
Flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are two intimately related phenomena on the Sun, yet a significant fraction of flares are not associated with CMEs, therefore being referred to as confined flares, whereas the complement are known as eruptive flares. The torus instability comes into play when the external field above a flux rope decreases sufficiently rapidly with increasing height1. Quantified by the decay index n = – dlnBex / dlnh (ref. 2), the threshold value of the instability ncrit is found in the range of 1-2 by various models and numerical simulations. Typically ncrit = 1.5 is taken as a yardstick number.
Here we carried out a statistical investigation to evaluate to what extent the decay index affects solar eruptions3, which has significant implications for space weather forecasting. We studied the background field of 60 two-ribbon, M-class-and-above flares during 2011-2015, located within ~45 degree from the disk center. The working assumption is that a magnetic flux rope is present during a two-ribbon flare, no matter wether the rope is preexistent or formed during the eruption. Due to the difficulty in decoupling Bex from the flux-rope field, the background field is approximated by a potential field extrapolated from the Bz component of vector magnetograms provided by the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager. The transverse component of the potential field, Bt, is employed to approximate the external field component orthogonal to the axial current of the flux rope, since potential field is almost orthogonal to polarity inversion line (PIL), along which a flux rope in equilibrium typically resides. To quantify the onset point of the torus instability, we calculated the decay index (n ≃ – dlnBt / dlnh) above the PIL segment in between the two flare ribbons, and then the critical height hcrit corresponding to the theoretical threshold (ncrit = 1.5).
The distribution of hcrit peaks at 20-30 Mm (left panel of Fig. 1), but for confined flares hcrit significantly spreads to higher heights than eruptive flares. The average hcrit is 36.3 ± 17.4 Mm for the 35 eruptive flares, and 53.6 ± 21.3 Mm for the 25 confined flares. Moreover, hcrit is roughly proportional to the flux centroid distance d of active regions (right panel of Fig. 1), i.e., hcrit ≃ d / 2, which may serve as a rule of thumb for the scale of hcrit.
Figure 1 | Distribution of hcrit (left) and its relation to the centroid distance d of active regions (right). In the right panel, plus and diamond symbols denote dipolar (D) and multipolar (M) magnetic field, respectively. Eruptive (E) and confined (C) events are shown in blue and red, respectively. Notion ‘sl’ indicates the slope given by linear fitting and ‘cc’ the correlation coefficient with the confidence interval denoted in the brackets. hcrit = d / 2 is marked by the dotted line.
Two distinct types of n(h) profiles emerge: 1) n increases monotonically as the height increases in 30 of 35 (86%) eruptive flares and in 21 of 25 (84%) confined flares; and 2) the rest 9 events, all originating from multipolar magnetic field, exhibit a saddle-like n(h) profile, with a local minimum nb at a height higher than hcrit (e.g., left panel of Fig. 2). nb of the 5 eruptive flares (black; right panel Fig. 2) is generally larger than that of the 4 confined flares (red).
Figure 2 | Saddle-like n(h) profile. Left panel shows an exemplary n(h) profile from the confined flare on 2014 February 4. nb and hcrit are marked. Right panel shows the distribution of nb for 5 eruptive (black) and 4 confined (red) flares.
Thus, this investigation confirms that the decay index profile of the background field plays an important role in deciding whether a two-ribbon flare would lead up to a CME. In particular, the saddle-like profile present in some active regions may provide an additional confinement effect on eruptions.
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