Compressible magnetohydrodynamic turbulence in interstellar plasmas

Yoram Lithwick*, Peter Goldreich

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

282 Scopus citations


Radio wave scintillation observations reveal a nearly Kolmogorov spectrum of density fluctuations in the ionized interstellar medium. Although this density spectrum is suggestive of turbulence, no theory relevant to its interpretation exists. We calculate the density spectrum in turbulent magnetized plasmas by extending the theory of incompressible magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) turbulence given by Goldreich & Sridhar to include the effects of compressibility and particle transport. Our most important results are as follows: 1. Density fluctuations are due to the slow mode and the entropy mode. Both modes are passively mixed by the cascade of shear Alfvén waves. Since the shear Alfvén waves have a Kolmogorov spectrum, so do the density fluctuations. 2. Observed density fluctuation amplitudes constrain the nature of MHD turbulence in the interstellar medium. Slow mode density fluctuations are suppressed when the magnetic pressure is less than the gas pressure. Entropy mode density fluctuations are suppressed by cooling when the cascade timescale is longer than the cooling timescale. These constraints imply either that the magnetic and gas pressures are comparable or that the outer scale of the turbulence is very small. 3. A high degree of ionization is required for the cascade to survive damping by neutrals and thereby to extend to small length scales. Regions that are insufficiently ionized produce density fluctuations only on length scales larger than the neutral damping scale. These regions may account for the excess of power that is found on large scales. 4. Provided that the thermal pressure exceeds the magnetic pressure, both the entropy mode and the slow mode are damped on length scales below that at which protons can diffuse across an eddy during the eddy's turnover time. Consequently, eddies whose extents along the magnetic field are smaller than the proton collisional mean free path do not contribute to the density spectrum. However, in MHD turbulence eddies are highly elongated along the magnetic field. From an observational perspective, the relevant length scale is that transverse to the magnetic field. Thus, the cutoff length scale for density fluctuations is significantly smaller than the proton mean free path. 5. The Alfvén mode is critically damped at the transverse length scale of the proton gyroradius and thus cascades to smaller length scales than either the slow mode or the entropy mode.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)279-296
Number of pages18
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 PART I
StatePublished - 2001


  • ISM: Kinematics and dynamics
  • MHD
  • Turbulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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