Irregular magnetic fields in interstellar clouds and variations in the observed circular polarization of spectral lines

W. D. Watson, D. S. Wiebe, R. M. Crutcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The strengths of magnetic fields in interstellar gas clouds are obtained through observations of the circular polarization of spectral line radiation. Irregularities in this magnetic field may be present because of turbulence, waves, or perhaps other causes, and may play an essential role in the structure and evolution of the gas clouds. To infer information about these irregularities from the observational data, we develop statistical relationships between the rms values of the irregular component of the magnetic field and spatial variations in the circular polarization of the spectral line radiation. The irregularities are characterized in analogy with descriptions of turbulence - by a sum of Fourier waves having a power spectrum with a slope similar to that of Kolmogorov turbulence. For comparison, we also perform computations in which turbulent magnetic and velocity fields from representative MHD simulations by others are utilized. Although the effects of the variations about the mean value of the magnetic field along the path of a ray tend to cancel, a significant residual effect in the polarization of the emergent radiation remains for typical values of the relevant parameters. A map of observed spectra of the 21 cm line toward Orion A is analyzed and the results are compared with our calculations in order to infer the strength of the irregular component of the magnetic field. The rms of the irregular component is found to be comparable in magnitude to the mean magnetic field within the cloud. Hence, the turbulent and Alfvén velocities should also be comparable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)377-385
Number of pages9
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 PART 1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2001


  • ISM: clouds
  • ISM: magnetic fields
  • Polarization
  • Stars: formation
  • Turbulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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