Quasars as cosmological probes: the ionizing continuum, gas metallicity, and the Wλ-L relation

Kirk Korista, Jack Baldwin, Gary Ferland

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72 Scopus citations


Using a realistic model for line emission from the broad emission line regions of quasars, we are able to reproduce the previously observed correlations of emission-line ratios with the shape of the spectral energy distribution (SED). In agreement with previous studies, we find that the primary driving force behind the Baldwin effect (Wλ ∝ Lβ, β< 0) is a global change in the SED with quasar luminosity, in that more luminous quasars must have characteristically softer ionizing continua. This is completely consistent with observations that show (1) a correlation between Luv, αox, and αuvx; (2) correlations of SED shape-sensitive line ratios with αox, αuvx, and Luv ; and (3) correlations between line equivalent widths and αox, αuvx, and Luv. However, to explain the complete lack of a correlation in the Wλ(N v)-Luv diagram, we propose that the more luminous quasars have characteristically larger gas metallicities (Z). As a secondary element, nitrogen's rapidly increasing abundance with increasing Z compensates for the losses in Wλ(N v) emitted by gas illuminated by softer continua in higher luminosity quasars. A characteristic relationship between Z and L has an impact on the Wλ-Luv relations for other lines as well. For a fixed SED, an increasing gas metallicity reduces the Wλ of the stronger metal lines (the gas cools), as well as that of Lyα and especially He II (because of the increasing metal opacity), while the weaker lines (e.g., C III] λ1909) generally respond positively. The interplay between the effects of a changing SED and Z with L results in the observed luminosity-dependent spectral variations. All of the resulting dependences on Luv are within the range of the observed slopes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-30
Number of pages7
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 PART I
StatePublished - 1998


  • Large-scale structure of universe
  • Quasars: emission lines

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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