Dense molecular gas: A sensitive probe of stellar feedback models

P. F. Hopkins, D. Narayanan, N. Murray, E. Quataert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


We show that the mass fraction of giant molecular cloud (GMC) gas (n100 cm-3) in dense (n 104 cm-3) star-forming clumps, observable in dense molecular tracers (LHCN/LCO(1-0)), is a sensitive probe of the strength and mechanism(s) of stellar feedback, as well as the star formation efficiencies in the most dense gas. Using high-resolution galaxy-scale simulations with pc-scale resolution and explicit models for feedback from radiation pressure, photoionization heating, stellar winds and supernovae (SNe), we make predictions for the dense molecular gas tracers as a function of GMC and galaxy properties and the efficiency of stellar feedback/star formation. In models with weak/no feedback, much of the mass in GMCs collapses into dense subunits, predicting LHCN/LCO(1-0) ratios order-of-magnitude larger than observed. By contrast, models with feedback properties taken directly from stellar evolution calculations predict dense gas tracers in good agreement with observations. Changing the strength or timing of SNe tends to move systems along, rather than off, the LHCN-LCO relation (because SNe heat lower density material, not the high-density gas). Changing the strength of radiation pressure (which acts efficiently in the highest density gas), however, has a much stronger effect on LHCN than on LCO. We show that degeneracies between the strength of feedback, and efficiency of star formation on small scales, can be broken by the combination of dense gas, intermediate-density gas and total star formation rate (SFR) tracers, and favour models where the galaxy-integrated star formation efficiency in dense gas is low. We also predict that the fraction of dense gas (LHCN/LCO(1-0)) increases with increasing GMC surface density; this drives a trend in LHCN/LCO(1-0) with SFR and luminosity which has tentatively been observed. Our results make specific predictions for enhancements in the dense gas tracers in unusually dense environments such as ultraluminous infrared galaxies and galactic nuclei (including the galactic centre).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)69-77
Number of pages9
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Cosmology: theory
  • Galaxies: active
  • Galaxies: evolution
  • Galaxies: formation
  • Galaxies: star formation


Dive into the research topics of 'Dense molecular gas: A sensitive probe of stellar feedback models'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this