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The rapid decline in metallicity of damped Lyα systems at z ~ 5.

Rafelski, M. and Neeleman, M. and Fumagalli, M. and Wolfe, A.M. and Prochaska, J.X. (2014) 'The rapid decline in metallicity of damped Lyα systems at z ~ 5.', Astrophysical journal letters., 782 (2). L29.


We present evidence that the cosmological mean metallicity of neutral atomic hydrogen gas shows a sudden decrease at z > 4.7 down to $\langle {Z}\rangle =-2.03^{+0.09}_{-0.11}$, which is 6σ deviant from that predicted by a linear fit to the data at lower redshifts. This measurement is made possible by the chemical abundance measurements of eight new damped Lyα (DLA) systems at z > 4.7 observed with the Echellette Spectrograph and Imager on the Keck II Telescope, doubling the number of measurements at z > 4.7 to 16. Possible explanations for this sudden decrease in metallicity include a change in the physical processes that enrich the neutral gas within disks, or an increase of the covering factor of neutral gas outside disks due to a lower ultraviolet radiation field and higher density at high redshift. The later possibility would result in a new population of presumably lower metallicity DLAs, with an increased contribution to the DLA population at higher redshifts resulting in a reduced mean metallicity. Furthermore, we provide evidence of a possible decrease at z > 4.7 in the comoving metal mass density of DLAs, ρmetals(z)DLA, which is flat out to z ~ 4.3. Such a decrease is expected, as otherwise most of the metals from star-forming galaxies would reside in DLAs by z ~ 6. While the metallicity is decreasing at high redshift, the contribution of DLAs to the total metal budget of the universe increases with redshift, with DLAs at z ~ 4.3 accounting for ~20% as many metals as produced by Lyman break galaxies.

Item Type:Article
Keywords:Galaxies: abundances, Galaxies: evolution, Galaxies: high-redshift, Galaxies: ISM, Quasars: absorption lines.
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Publisher statement:© 2014. The American Astronomical Society. All rights reserved.
Date accepted:15 January 2014
Date deposited:03 July 2014
Date of first online publication:05 February 2014
Date first made open access:No date available

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