Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Long-lived giant cells detected at the surface of the Sun


Giant convective cells have been predicted1 to exist in the Sun. Such cells should span the entire zone unstable to convective motions — now known to cover the outer 29 per cent of the Sun's radius2 — and could be dredging up the magnetic flux that is thought to be the source of solar activity (sunspots). Several studies3,4,5 have failed to detect these giant cells, although there have been hints6,7,8,9 of their existence. We have detected long-lived velocity cells, which we identify as the elusive giant convective cells, extending over 40–50 degrees of longitude but less than 10 degrees of latitude. The large aspect ratio (>4) is surprising (although predicted by one model10) and may be a consequence of the Sun's differential rotation, whereby features with a larger extent in latitude are broken up by rotational shear.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Autocorrelation (a) and cross-correlation (b) of the time series for selected bins.
Figure 2: Maps of the east–west component of flow speed obtained by averaging over a disk passage.
Figure 3: The autocorrelation computed for the map of EPS Fig. 2 for the latitude 5± 5°.


  1. Simon, G. W. & Weiss, N. O. Supergranules and the hydrogen convection zone. Z. Astrophys. 69, 435–450 (1968).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Christensen-Dalsgaard, J., Gough, D. O. & Thompson, M. J. The depth of the solar convection zone. Astrophys. J. 378, 413–437 (1991).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. LaBonte, B. J., Howard, R. & Gilman, P. A. An improved search for large-scale convection cells in the solar atmosphere. Astrophys. J. 250, 796–798 (1981).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Snodgrass, H. B. & Howard, R. Limits on photospheric Doppler signatures for solar giant cells. Astrophys. J. 284, 848–855 (1984).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Chiang, W.-H., Petro, L. D. & Foukal, P. V. Aphotometric search for solar giant convection cells. Sol. Phys. 110, 129–138 (1987).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Cram, L. E., Durney, B. R. & Guenther, D. B. Preliminary observations of velocity fields at the solar poles. Astrophys. J. 267, 442–454 (1983).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Hathaway, D. H. et al. GONG observations of solar surface flows. Science 272, 1306–1309 (1996).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Simon, G. W. & Strous, L. H. Supergranular evolution, solar rotation, and a search for giant cells. Bull. Am. Astron. Soc. 29, 1402 (1997).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Ulrich, R. K. Large scale convection and the solar radius.In New Eyes to See Inside the Sun and Stars(eds Deubner, F.-L., Christnsen-Dalsgaard, J. & Kurtz, D. W.) (Proc. IAU Symp. 185, Kluwer, in the press).

  10. Snodgrass, H. B. & Wilson, P. R. Solar torsional oscillations as a signature of giant cells. Nature 328, 696–699 (1987).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Brown, T. M. & Gilman, P. A. Techniques for detecting giant cells using spatially resolved solar velocity data. Astrophys. J. 286, 804–809 (1984).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Scherrer, P. H. et al. The solar oscillations investigation — Michelson Doppler imager. Sol. Phys. 162, 129–188 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Scherrer, P. H., Bogart, R., Hoeksema, J. T. & Yoshimura, H. in Seismology of the Sun and Distant Stars (ed. Gough, D. O.) 93–102 (Reidel, Dordrecht, (1986)).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  14. Gilman, P. A. Nonlinear boussinesq convective model for large scale solar circulations. Sol. Phys. 27, 3–26 (1972).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Duvall, T. L. J, Harvey, J. W. & Pomerantz, M. A. Latitude and depth variation of solar rotation. Nature 321, 500–501 (1986).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Schou, J. et al. Helioseismic studies with SOI-MDI of differential rotation in the solar envelope. Astrophys. J.(in the press).

  17. Nordlund, & & Aring;Dravins, D. Stellar granulation, III. Hydrodynamic model atmosheres. Astron. Astrophys. 228, 155–183 (1990).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Kim, Y.-C., Fox, P. A., Sofia, S. & Demarque, P. Modeling of shallow and inefficient convection in the outer layers of the sun using realistic physics. Astrophys. J. 442, 422–433 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Freytag, B., Ludwig, H.-G. & Steffen, M. Hydrodynamical models of stellar convection; the role of overshoot in DA white dwarfs, A-type stars, and the sun. Astron. Astrophys. 313, 497–516 (1996).

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Bai, T. Distribution of flares on the sun during 1955–1985; “hot spots” (active zones) lasting for 30 years. Astrophys. J. 328, 860–878 (1988).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Duvall, T. L. J, D'Silva, S., Jefferies, S. M. & Harvey, J. W. Downflow under sunspots detected by helioseismic tomography. Nature 379, 235–237 (1996).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kosovichev, A. G. Tomographic imaging of the sun's interior. Astrophys. J. 461, L55–L57 (1996).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Giles, P. M. et al. Asubsurface flow of material from the sun's equator to its poles. Nature 390, 52–54 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


T.L.D. thanks P. Scherrer and the SOI group at Stanford for their hospitality during this work and for the use of their computing faciities, supported by NASA. SOHO is a mission of international cooperation between ESA and NASA. This work was supported in part by the Solar Physics Branch of the Space Physics Division of NASA.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. G. Beck.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Beck, J., Duvall, T. & Scherrer, P. Long-lived giant cells detected at the surface of the Sun. Nature 394, 653–655 (1998).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing