Convective-region geometry as the cause of Uranus' and Neptune's unusual magnetic fields

Abstract

The discovery of Uranus' and Neptune's non-dipolar, non-axisymmetric magnetic fields1,2,3,4 destroyed the picture—established by Earth, Jupiter and Saturn5,6—that planetary magnetic fields are dominated by axial dipoles. Although various explanations for these unusual fields have been proposed3,7,8,9,10, the cause of such field morphologies remains unexplained. Planetary magnetic fields are generated by complex fluid motions in electrically conducting regions of the planets (a process known as dynamo action), and so are intimately linked to the structure and evolution of planetary interiors. Determining why Uranus and Neptune have different field morphologies is not only critical for studying the interiors of these planets, but also essential for understanding the dynamics of magnetic-field generation in all planets. Here we present three-dimensional numerical dynamo simulations that model the dynamo source region as a convecting thin shell surrounding a stably stratified fluid interior. We show that this convective-region geometry produces magnetic fields similar in morphology to those of Uranus and Neptune. The fields are non-dipolar and non-axisymmetric, and result from a combination of the stable fluid's response to electromagnetic stress and the small length scales imposed by the thin shell.

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Figure 1: Dynamo model geometries.
Figure 2: Surface radial magnetic fields.
Figure 3: Surface magnetic power spectra.

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Acknowledgements

We thank D. Stevenson for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by NSERC and NSF.

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Correspondence to Sabine Stanley.

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Stanley, S., Bloxham, J. Convective-region geometry as the cause of Uranus' and Neptune's unusual magnetic fields. Nature 428, 151–153 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02376

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