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Journal Article



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Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society





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The most common means of converting an observed CO line intensity into a
molecular gas mass requires the use of a conversion factor (Xco). While in the
Milky Way this quantity does not appear to vary significantly, there is good
reason to believe that Xco will depend on the larger-scale galactic
environment. Utilising numerical models, we investigate how varying
metallicities, gas temperatures and velocity dispersions in galaxies impact the
way CO line emission traces the underlying H2 gas mass, and under what
circumstances Xco may differ from the Galactic mean value. We find that, due to
the combined effects of increased gas temperature and velocity dispersion, Xco
is depressed below the Galactic mean in high surface density environments such
as ULIRGs. In contrast, in low metallicity environments, Xco tends to be higher
than in the Milky Way, due to photodissociation of CO in metal-poor clouds. At
higher redshifts, gas-rich discs may have gravitationally unstable clumps which
are warm (due to increased star formation) and have elevated velocity
dispersions. These discs tend to have Xco values ranging between present-epoch
gas-rich mergers and quiescent discs at low-z. This model shows that on
average, mergers do have lower Xco values than disc galaxies, though there is
significant overlap. Xco varies smoothly with the local conditions within a
galaxy, and is not a function of global galaxy morphology. We combine our
results to provide a general fitting formula for Xco as a function of CO line
intensity and metallicity. We show that replacing the traditional approach of
using one constant Xco for starbursts and another for discs with our best-fit
function produces star formation laws that are continuous rather than bimodal,
and that have significantly reduced scatter.


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