The low-redshift Lyα forest in cold dark matter cosmologies

Romeel Davé, Lars Hernquist, Neal Katz, David H. Weinberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

404 Scopus citations


We study the physical origin of the low-redshift Lyα forest in hydrodynamic simulations of four cosmological models, all variants of the cold dark matter scenario. Our most important conclusions are insensitive to the cosmological model, but they depend on our assumption that the UV background declines at low redshift in concert with the declining population of quasar sources. We find that the expansion of the universe drives rapid evolution of dN/dz (the number of absorbers per unit redshift above a specified equivalent width threshold) at z ≳ 1.7, but that at lower redshift the fading of the UV background counters the influence of expansion, leading to slow evolution of dN/dz. The draining of gas from low-density regions into collapsed structures has a mild but not negligible effect on the evolution of dN/dz, especially for high equivalent-width thresholds. At every redshift, weaker lines come primarily from moderate fluctuations of the diffuse, unshocked intergalactic medium (IGM) and stronger lines originate in shocked or radiatively cooled gas of higher overdensity. However, the neutral hydrogen column density associated with structures of fixed overdensity drops as the universe expands, so an absorber at z = 0 is dynamically analogous to an absorber that has column density 10-50 times higher at z = 2-3. In particular, the mildly overdense IGM fluctuations that dominate the Lyα forest opacity at z > 2 produce optically thin lines at z < 1, while the marginally saturated (NHI ∼ 1014.5 cm-2) lines at z < 1 typically arise in gas that is overdense by a factor of 20-100. We find no clear distinction between lines arising in "galaxy halos" and lines arising in larger scale structures; however, galaxies tend to lie near the dense regions of the IGM that are responsible for strong Lyα lines. The simulations provide a unified physical picture that accounts for the most distinctive observed properties of the low-redshift Lyα forest: (1) a sharp transition in the evolution of dN/dz at z ∼ 1.7, (2) stronger evolution for absorbers of higher equivalent width, (3) a correlation of increasing Lyα equivalent width with decreasing galaxy impact parameter that extends to rp ∼ 500 h-1 kpc, and (4) a tendency for stronger lines to arise in close proximity to galaxies while weaker lines trace more diffuse large-scale structure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)521-545
Number of pages25
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2 PART 1
StatePublished - Feb 1 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Galaxies: formation
  • Large-scale structure of universe
  • Quasars: absorption lines

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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