Published on Wed Jul 07 2021

Thermal Instabilities and Shattering in the High-Redshift WHIM: Convergence Criteria and Implications for Low-Metallicity Strong HI Absorbers

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Using a novel suite of cosmological simulations zooming in on a Mpc-scale intergalactic sheet or "pancake" at z~3-5, we conduct an in-depth study of the thermal properties and HI content of the warm-hot intergalactic medium (WHIM) at those redshifts. The simulations span nearly three orders of magnitude in gas-cell mass, from ~(7.7x10^6-1.5x10^4)Msun, one of the highest resolution simulations of such a large patch of the inter-galactic medium (IGM) to date. At z~5, a strong accretion shock develops around the main pancake following a collision between two smaller sheets. Gas in the post-shock region proceeds to cool rapidly, triggering thermal instabilities and the formation of a multiphase medium. We find neither the mass, nor the morphology, nor the distribution of HI in the WHIM to be converged at our highest resolution. Interestingly, the lack of convergence is more severe for the less dense, more metal-poor, intra-pancake medium (IPM) in between filaments and far from any star-forming galaxies. As the resolution increases, the IPM develops a shattered structure, with ~kpc scale clouds containing most of the HI. From our lowest to highest resolution, the covering fraction of metal-poor (Z<10^{-3}Zsun) Lyman-limit systems (NHI>10^{17.2}/cm^2) in the IPM at z~4 increases from (3-15)%, while that of Damped Lyman-alpha Absorbers (NHI>10^{20}/cm^2) with similar metallicity increases threefold, from (0.2-0.6)%, with no sign of convergence. We find that a necessary condition for the formation of a multiphase, shattered structure is resolving the cooling length, lcool=cs*tcool, at T~10^5K. If this scale is unresolved, gas "piles up" at these temperatures and cooling to lower temperatures becomes very inefficient. We conclude that state-of-the-art cosmological simulations are still unable to resolve the multi-phase structure of the low-density IGM, with potentially far-reaching implications.