Is turbulence in the interstellar medium driven by feedback or gravity? An observational test

Mark R. Krumholz, Blakesley Burkhart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Scopus citations


Galaxies' interstellar media (ISM) are observed to be supersonically turbulent, but the ultimate power source that drives turbulent motion remains uncertain. The two dominant models are that the turbulence is driven by star formation feedback and/or that it is produced by gravitational instability in the gas. Here we show that, while both models predict that the galaxies' ISM velocity dispersions will be positively correlated with their star formation rates, the forms of the correlation predicted by these two models are subtly but measurably different. A feedback-driven origin for the turbulence predicts a velocity dispersion that rises more sharply with star formation rate, and that does not depend on the gas fraction (i.e. M˙* ∝ σ2), while a gravity-driven model yields a shallower rise and a strong dependence on gas fraction (i.e. M˙* ∝ f2gσ). We compare the models to a collection of data on local and high-redshift galaxies culled from the literature, and show that the correlation expected for gravity-driven turbulence is a better match to the observations than a feedback-driven model. This suggests that gravity is the ultimate source of ISM turbulence, at least in the rapidly star-forming, high-velocity dispersion galaxies for which our test is most effective. We conclude by discussing the limitations of the present data set, and the prospects for future measurements to enable a more definitive test of the two models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1671-1677
Number of pages7
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Galaxies: ISM
  • Galaxies: Starburst
  • ISM: Kinematics and dynamics
  • Stars: Formation
  • Turbulence


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