Fractal quasar clouds

Mark Bottorff, Gary Ferland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


This paper examines whether a fractal cloud geometry can reproduce the emission-line spectra of active galactic nuclei (AGNs). The nature of the emitting clouds is unknown, but many current models invoke various types of magnetohydrodynamic confinement. Recent studies have argued that a fractal distribution of clouds, in which subsets of clouds occur in self-similar hierarchies, is a consequence of such confinement. Whatever the confinement mechanism, fractal cloud geometries are found in nature and may be present in AGNs too. We first outline how a fractal geometry can apply at the center of a luminous quasar. Scaling laws are derived that establish the number of hierarchies, typical sizes, column densities, and densities. Photoionization simulations are used to predict the integrated spectrum from the ensemble. Direct comparison with observations establishes all model parameters so that the final predictions are fully constrained. Theory suggests that denser clouds might form in regions of higher turbulence and that larger turbulence results in a wider dispersion of physical gas densities. An increase in turbulence is expected deeper within the gravitational potential of the black hole, resulting in a density gradient. We mimic this density gradient by employing two sets of clouds with identical fractal structuring but different densities. The low-density clouds have a lower column density and large covering factor similar to the warm absorber. The high-density clouds have high column density and smaller covering factor similar to the broad-line region (BLR). A fractal geometry can simultaneously reproduce the covering factor, density, column density, BLR emission-line strengths, and BLR line ratios as inferred from observation. Absorption properties of the model are consistent with the integrated line-of-sight column density as determined from observations of X-ray absorption, and when scaled to a Seyfert galaxy, the model is consistent with the number of multiple UV absorption components observed in them. Rough estimates show that about one in 100 of the galaxies that harbor a supermassive black hole will show activity, assuming that material needs to be within its EUV continuum emitting radius for activity to occur. This is close to the observationally determined duty cycle. Stochastic feeding of the central engine of fractal cloud distribution of material may therefore account for continuum variations and long-term activity. The total cloud mass is much larger than that measured in ionized gas alone since the clouds are mutually self-shielding.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-132
Number of pages15
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 PART 1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2001


  • Galaxies: ISM
  • Quasars: emission lines
  • Quasars: general
  • Radiation mechanisms: thermal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Fractal quasar clouds'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this