A Kennicutt-Schmidt law for intervening absorption line systems

Doron Chelouche, David V. Bowen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We argue that most strong intervening metal absorption line systems, where the rest equivalent width of the Mg iiλ2796 line is >0.5 Å, are interstellar material in, and outflowing from, star-forming disks. We show that a version of the Kennicutt-Schmidt law is readily obtained if the Mg ii equivalent widths are interpreted as kinematic broadening from absorbing gas in outflowing winds originating from star-forming galaxies. Taking a phenomenological approach and using a set of observational constraints available for star-forming galaxies, we are able to account for the density distribution of strong Mg II absorbers over cosmic time. The association of intervening material with star-forming disks naturally explains the metallicity and dust content of strong Mg ii systems, as well as their high H I column densities, and does not require the advection of metals from compact star-forming regions into the galaxy halos to account for the observations. We find that galaxies with a broad range of luminosities can give rise to absorption of a given rest equivalent width and discuss possible observational strategies to better quantify true galaxy-absorber associations and further test our model. We show that the redshift evolution in the density of absorbers closely tracks the star formation history of the universe and that strong intervening systems can be used to directly probe the physics of both bright and faint galaxies over a broad redshift range. In particular, in its simplest form, our model suggests that many of the statistical properties of star-forming galaxies and their associated outflows have not evolved significantly since z ∼ 2. By identifying strong intervening systems with galaxy disks and quantifying a version of the Kennicutt-Schmidt law that applies to them, a new probe of the interstellar medium is found which provides complementary information to that obtained through emission studies of galaxies. Implications of our results for galaxy feedback and enrichment of the intergalactic medium are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1821-1843
Number of pages23
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 20 Oct 2010


  • Galaxies: evolution
  • ISM: jets and outflows
  • Intergalactic medium
  • Quasars: absorption lines
  • Stars: formation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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