The onset of large-scale turbulence in the interstellar medium of spiral galaxies

D. Falceta-Goncalves*, I. Bonnell, G. Kowal, J. R. D. Lepine, C. A. S. Braga

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Turbulence is ubiquitous in the interstellar medium (ISM) of the Milky Way and other spiral galaxies. The energy source for this turbulence has been much debated with many possible origins proposed. The universality of turbulence, its reported large-scale driving, and that it occurs also in starless molecular clouds, challenges models invoking any stellar source. A more general process is needed to explain the observations. In this work, we study the role of galactic spiral arms. This is accomplished by means of three-dimensional hydrodynamical simulations which follow the dynamical evolution of interstellar diffuse clouds (similar to 100 cm-3) interacting with the gravitational potential field of the spiral pattern. We find that the tidal effects of the arm's potential on the cloud result in internal vorticity, fragmentation and hydrodynamical instabilities. The triggered turbulence results in large-scale driving, on sizes of the ISM inhomogeneities, i.e. as large as similar to 100 pc, and efficiencies in converting potential energy into turbulence in the range similar to 10-25 per cent per arm crossing. This efficiency is much higher than those found in previous models. The statistics of the turbulence in our simulations are strikingly similar to the observed power spectrum and Larson scaling relations of molecular clouds and the general ISM. The dependence found from different models indicate that the ISM turbulence is mainly related to local spiral arm properties, such as its mass density and width. This correlation seems in agreement with recent high angular resolution observations of spiral galaxies, e.g. M51 and M33.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)973-989
Number of pages17
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number1
Early online date14 Nov 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015


  • Turbulence
  • Methods: numerical
  • Stars: formation
  • ISM: clouds
  • ISM: general
  • ISM: kinematics and dynamics
  • Giant molecular clouds
  • Star-formation
  • Magnetic-field
  • Supersonic turbulence
  • Velocity field
  • Galactic disks
  • Magnetohydrodynamic turbulence
  • 2-dimensional turbulence
  • Numerical simulations
  • Wiggle instability


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