Selecting damped Lyman alpha systems through CaII absorption - I. Dust depletions and reddening at z similar to 1

V Wild, P C Hewett, M Pettini

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Abstract

We use the average E(B-V) and Zn II column densities of a sample of z similar to 1 Ca II lambda lambda 3935, 3970 absorption-line systems selected from the fourth data release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) to show that on average, with conservative assumptions regarding metallicities and dust-to-gas ratios, they contain column densities of neutral hydrogen greater than the damped Lyman alpha (DLA) limit. We propose that selection by Ca II absorption is an effective way of identifying high column densities of neutral hydrogen, and thus large samples of DLAs at z(abs) less than or similar to 1.3 from the SDSS. The number density of strong Ca II absorbers (with rest-frame equivalent width W-lambda 3935 >= 0.5 angstrom), is similar to 20-30 per cent that of DLAs, after correcting for the significant bias against their detection due to obscuration of the background quasars by dust. On average these absorbers have E(B - V) greater than or similar to 0.1 mag; the dustiest absorbers show depletions of refractory elements at a level of the largest depletions seen in DLAs. For the first time we can measure the dust-to-metals ratio in a sample of absorption-selected galaxies, and find values close to, or even larger than, those observed locally. All of these properties suggest that a substantial fraction of the Ca II absorbers are more chemically evolved than typical DLAs. There is a trend of increasing dust content with W-lambda 3935; this trend with strong-line equivalent width is also observed in an equivalent, but much larger, sample of MgII absorbers. Such a trend would result if the dustier systems are hosted by more massive, or disturbed, galaxies. Follow-up imaging is required to provide conclusive evidence for or against these scenarios. From consideration of the E(B - V) distribution in our sample, and assuming Ca II absorbers represent a subset of DLAs, we calculate that dust obscuration causes an underestimation in the number density of DLAs by at least 8-12 per cent at these redshifts. Finally, the removal of broad absorption line (BAL) quasars from the SDSS quasar sample increases the sensitivity of the detection of reddening by intervening absorbers. To this end, we describe a new, automated, principal component analysis (PCA) method for identifying BAL quasars.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-230
Number of pages20
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Volume367
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 21 Mar 2006

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