This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Physics. Please check back later for the full article.
The solar dynamo is the action of flows inside the Sun to maintain its magnetic field against Ohmic decay. On small scales the magnetic field is seen at the solar surface as a ubiquitous “salt and pepper” disorganized field that might be generated directly by the turbulent convection. On large scales, the magnetic field is remarkably organized, with an 11-year activity cycle. During each cycle the field emerging in each hemisphere has a specific East-West alignment (known as Hale’s law) that changes from cycle to cycle, a statistical tendency for a North-South alignment (Joy’s law), and polar fields that reverse sign during the period of maximum activity each cycle.
The relevant flows for the large-scale dynamo are those of convection; the bulk rotation of the Sun; and motions driven by magnetic fields, as well as flows produced by the interaction of these. Particularly important are the Sun’s large-scale differential rotation (for example, the equator rotates faster than the poles), and small-scale helical motions resulting from the Coriolis force acting on convective motions or on the motions associated with buoyant rising magnetic flux. These two types of motions result in a magnetic cycle. In one phase of the cycle, differential rotation winds up a poloidal magnetic field to produce a toroidal field.
Subsequently helical motions are thought to bend the toroidal field to create new poloidal magnetic flux that reverses and replaces the poloidal field that was present at the start of the cycle.
It is now clear that both small- and large-scale dynamo action are in principle possible, and the challenge is to understand which combination of flows and driving mechanisms are responsible for the time-dependent magnetic fields seen on the Sun.