On the evolution of the HI column density distribution in cosmological simulations
We use a set of cosmological simulations combined with radiative transfer calculations to investigate the distribution of neutral hydrogen in the post-reionization Universe. We assess the contributions from the metagalactic ionizing background, collisional ionization and diffuse recombination radiation to the total ionization rate at redshifts z=0-5. We find that the densities above which hydrogen self-shielding becomes important are consistent with analytic calculations and previous works. However, because of diffuse recombination radiation, whose intensity peaks at the same density, the transition between highly ionized and self-shielded regions is smoother than what is usually assumed. We provide fitting functions to the simulated photoionization rate as a function of density and show that post-processing simulations with the fitted rates yields results that are in excellent agreement with the original radiative transfer calculations. The predicted neutral hydrogen column density distributions agree very well with the observations. In particular, the simulations reproduce the remarkable lack of evolution in the column density distribution of Lyman limit and weak damped Lyα\ systems below z = 3. The evolution of the low column density end is affected by the increasing importance of collisional ionization with decreasing redshift. On the other hand, the simulations predict the abundance of strong damped Lyα\ systems to broadly track the cosmic star formation rate density.