as a tracer of ionization evolution *
Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica, Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste, Via Tiepolo 11, 34131 Trieste, Italy
Corresponding author: G. Vladilo, firstname.lastname@example.org
Accepted: 27 February 2003
We present a study of Ar abundances in 15 damped Ly α systems (DLAs) in the redshift interval . The sample includes 4 UVES/VLT measurements of column densities presented here for the first time, together with 6 measurements and 5 upper/lower limits collected from the literature (UVES/VLT and HIRES/Keck observations). The majority of DLAs show significant underabundances of Ar relative to other α-capture elements with common nucleosynthetic origin. We show that neither dust depletion nor intervening regions inside DLAs offer a viable justification to these underabundances. A natural explanation is found in the framework of photoionization models of regions embedded in an ionizing continuum with varying spectral distribution. At the observed Ar deficiencies are large, [ Ar/ dex, suggestive of a hard, QSO-dominated spectrum. At the deficiencies are instead small, suggestive of a soft, stellar-type spectrum, though more data are needed to generalize this high-z result. Should the change of Ar abundances with redshift be governed by the evolution of the UV stellar emission internal to DLAs, a synchronization of the star formation in DLAs would be required, with a strong stellar emission at , but weak at . This variation seems inconsistent with the weak signal of evolution indicated by abundance studies of DLAs. More likely, the change of Ar abundances is induced by the evolution of the UV metagalactic continuum, in which case the UV emission internal to DLAs must be small (i.e. DLAs should have modest star formation rates) and the external background must become softer at . The former requirement is consistent with the modest evolution of DLAs abundances and the lack of Ly α and H α emissions associated with DLAs. The latter requirement is consistent with the observed evolution of / ratios in the IGM, the claims of high escape fraction of UV photons from Ly-break galaxies at , and the recent finding that the re-ionization seems to occur between and . Comparison with results from local interstellar studies indicates that Ar abundances can be used to trace the evolution of the ionization history of the universe down to , where [ Ar/ dex. We predict a rise of Ar abundances in the redshift range from to , at the epoch at which the metagalactic field of galaxies overcomes that of quasars.
Key words: intergalactic medium / ultraviolet: galaxies / cosmology: observations / quasars: absorption lines
© ESO, 2003