A long-standing puzzle in the study of black-hole accretion concerns the presence or not of thermal instability. Classical theory predicts the encircling accretion disk is unstable, as do some self-consistent MHD simulations of the flow. Yet observations of strongly accreting sources generally fail to exhibit cyclic or unstable dynamics on the expected timescales. This paper checks whether turbulent fluctuations impede thermal instability. It also asks if it makes sense to conduct linear stability analyses on a turbulent background. These issues are explored with a set of MRI simulations in thermally unstable local boxes in combination with stochastic equations that approximate the disk energetics. These models show that the disk’s thermal behaviour deviates significantly from laminar theory, though ultimately a thermal runaway does occur. We find that the disk temperature evolves as a biased random walk, rather than increasing exponentially, and thus generates a broad spread of outcomes, with instability often delayed for several thermal times. We construct a statistical theory that describes some of this behaviour, emphasising the importance of the `escape time’ and its associated probability distribution. In conclusion, turbulent fluctuations on there own cannot stabilise a disk, but they can weaken and delay thermal instability.
J. Ross, H. Latter and M. Tehranchi
Thu, 2 Mar 17
Comments: 16 pages, 16 figures, MNRAS accepted