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Reviews of Geophysics

High-latitude F region irregularities: A review and synthesis


  • Roland T. Tsunoda


The most intense, F region irregularities in the high-latitude ionosphere appear to be produced by convective plasma processes and in particular, by the fluid inline image (gradient drift) interchange instability. Such irregularities are produced by convectively mixing plasma across a mean plasma density gradient with the transport of higher-density plasma into regions of lower-density plasma (and vice versa) leading to the development of an irregularity spectrum that extends in scale from about 10 km down to the ion gyroradius. The mean plasma density gradient that must be present to allow irregularity production by this interchange process appears to be associated with larger-scale (>10 km) plasma structure produced by other means. Because much of the recent progress on this research topic stems from this recognition, a significant portion of this review is dedicated to a description of the characteristics and processes of 10-km plasma structure and their relationships to those of smaller-scale irregularities. From this review, we synthesize a descriptive model of plasma structures in the high-latitude F layer that unifies most of the diverse and independent observations. For the large-scale plasma processes, the model includes (1) the formation of 1000-km-scale “patches” in the polar cap from solar-produced plasma that is transported poleward from lower latitudes; (2) the reconfiguration of patches as they convect into the auroral region and become the latitudinally confined, but longitudinally extended, plasma density enhancements near the equatorward auroral boundary; and (3) the production of localized enhancements and depletions along the poleward auroral boundary by soft-particle precipitation and large but localized electric fields. In the model, the most intense, smaller-scale irregularities are in spatial proximity to these large-scale plasma features, the implication being that the presence of the latter allows formation of the former. The irregularity characteristics are consistent with production by the inline image instability and a morphology controlled by (1) a “slip” velocity (i.e., plasma drift relative to the neutral gas) that is moderately small except in regions of nonuniform plasma convection or under time-varying conditions (e.g., substorms, pulsation events) and (2) a highly conducting auroral E layer that damps irregularity growth and enhances decay. The final irregularity spectrum appears to be produced by (1) global convective processes acting on solar-produced plasma at the largest scales (>50 km), (2) particle precipitation at scales greater than 10 km, (3) perhaps some form of wave activity around 10 km, and (4) the inline image instability at the smaller scales (<10 km).

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