Can anyone point me in the direction of some resources - or know themselves - regarding the density distribution of the ISM? So far googling has turned up very little.

I realise there will be nuances relating to 'lumpiness' or turbulence, but any information on a general density distribution or a model based on different components would be greatly helpful.

  • $\begingroup$ You could add the resources tag to your list. $\endgroup$
    – user140606
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ Have you looked in the ADS (Astrophys. Data System)? $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ This is an excellent question, because in my opinion such resources are not easily found. I will write an answer now, but as a spoiler, let me suggest Ferrière (2001). $\endgroup$
    – pela
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean in the solar neighbourhood; in the galactic plane; somewhere else? $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ Galactic plane is of primary interest, but a general model over the whole galaxy would be ideal. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 9:00

1 Answer 1


Due to distinct plateaus in the cooling function of interstellar gas, densities and temperatures do not in general take any conceivable value, but are instead divided into certain phases. Because these phases are roughly (but definitely not always) in pressure equilibrium, in general the product of the temperature $T$ and density $n$ is constant. That is, the colder a phase is, the denser it gets (and vice versa).

I think the first to recognize this fact was Field et al. (1969), who considered two phases, a warm ($T\sim10^4\,\mathrm{K}$) and a cold ($T\sim10^2\,\mathrm{K}$) phase in the Milky Way.

McKee & Ostriker (1977) extended this with a third, hot ($T\sim10^6\,\mathrm{K}$) phase, created by supernova remnants. They also divided the warm phase into a neutral and an ionized phase.

In addition to this, there is an even denser phase that is so cold that molecules can form.

This leaves us with five phases, dubbed the molecular medium (MM), the cold neutral medium (CNM), the warm neutral medium (WNM), the warm ionized medium (WIM), and the hot ionized medium (HIM).

Although first based on the Milky Way, the interstellar medium of high-redshift galaxies seems to follow similar patterns. A very good review of the properties of these phases is given by Ferrière (2001). Her Table 1 gives the densities and temperatures. With additional information about the ionized fraction $x_\mathrm{HII}$ and the total volume filling factor FF of the gas from Brinks (1990), Caselli et al. (1998), Wolfire et al. (2003), Mihalas & Binney (1981), and Jenkins (2013), you have the following table:


Note that the above values are only approximate!

See also this answer to see the more or less universal cooling function that causes the different phases.

  • $\begingroup$ This is great! Out of interest, is there any information on how the density changes within a phase? e.g. in the MM phase the density might decrease as $1/r$, whilst in the CNM phase the density may change exponentially, logarithmically, be constant etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ Most of the phases have quite sharp boundaries, quickly reaching a more or less uniform density field, or at least have fluctuations that don't follow any simple profile. For the MM in particular, which are more regular "clouds" than the other phases, they tend to have more definite density profiles, like $n\propto r^{-\alpha}$, with $\alpha\sim1.5$. This is not my field of expertise, but googling "molecular cloud density profile" leads me e.g. to Pigurov (2009). $\endgroup$
    – pela
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 11:22

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