The Sun's Meridional Flow and Its Role in Magnetic Flux Transport and the Sunspot Cycle

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 4:15 PM
David H Hathaway, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States and Lisa Upton, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, United States
The Sun’s meridional flow can be measured with a variety of measurement techniques including, but not limited to: direct Doppler, magnetic feature tracking, velocity feature tracking, time-distance helioseismology, and ring-diagram analysis. Direct Doppler gives information on the flow in the photosphere while the other measurement techniques provide information about the flow at some depth or range of depths in the Sun’s convection zone. These various measurement methods now provide a converging (but not yet fully converged) picture of the meridional flow as a function of latitude, depth, and time. This converging picture has a flow which is poleward from the equator all the way to pole in the near surface layers, has an equatorward return flow beginning at a depth of about 50 Mm, and has another poleward branch deeper in the convection zone. The poleward flow in the near surface layers varies systematically in strength and latitudinal structure with the phase of the sunspot cycle and from one cycle to the next. This near surface meridional flow is observed to play a significant role in the poleward transport of the magnetic flux that emerges at the surface in the form of bipolar active regions. Variations in the strength and structure of the meridional flow introduce variations in the strength of the Sun’s polar fields, which in turn introduce variations in the size of subsequent sunspot cycles. The polar fields at the end of cycle 23 (2008-2009) were much weaker than the polar fields at the end of the previous cycles. This led to the production of the weakest sunspot cycle in 100 years – cycle 24. Surprisingly, we find that the variations we observed in the meridional flow during cycle 23 led to stronger polar fields than would have been produced otherwise. This suggests that variations in the meridional flow can be one mechanism for modulating the sizes of sunspot cycles – helping to keep them from getting too big or too small.