Geophysical Research Letters

Multi-scale structure of the electron diffusion region

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Abstract

[1] Kinetic simulations of magnetic reconnection indicate that the electron diffusion region (EDR) can elongate into a highly stretched current layer with a width on the electron scale and a length that exceeds tens of ion inertial lengths. The resulting structure has no fluid analogue and consists of two regions in the exhaust direction. The inner region is characterized by the locale where electrons reach a peak outflow speed near the electron Alfvén velocity. Ions also approach ∼80% of their peak velocity in this inner region but remain sub-Alfvénic. There exists a large electrostatic potential that can temporarily trap electrons within this inner region. The electron frozen-in condition is violated over a wider outer region characterized by highly collimated electron jets that are gradually decelerated and thermalized. Reconnection proceeds continuously but the rate is modulated in time as the EDR elongates into an extended layer. The elongation of the EDR is controlled by the competition between the outward convection of magnetic flux and the non-ideal term involving the divergence of the electron pressure tensor. The occasional balance between these two terms leads to periods of quasi-steady reconnection. However, over longer time scales, a natural feature of the reconnection process appears to be frequent formation of plasmoids due to the instability of the elongated EDR which leads to larger variations in the reconnection rate. These new findings provide testable predictions and indicate the need to reconsider the diagnostics for identification of the diffusion region and interpretation of observational data.

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