The impact of early massive mergers on the chemical evolution of Milky Way-like galaxies: insights from NIHAO-UHD simulations

Tobias Buck, Aura Obreja, Bridget Ratcliffe, Yuxi Lu, Ivan Minchev, Andrea Macciò

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent observations of the Milky Way (MW) found an unexpected steepening of the star-forming gas metallicity gradient around the time of the Gaia–Sausage–Enceladus (GSE) merger event. Here, we investigate the influence of early (tmerger ≲ 5 Gyr) massive (Mgasmerger /Mgasmain(tmerger) ≳ 10 per cent) merger events such as the Gaia–Sausage–Enceladus merger in the MW on the evolution of the cold gas metallicity gradient. We use the NIHAO-UHD suite of cosmological hydrodynamical simulations of MW-mass galaxies to study the frequency of massive early mergers and their detailed impact on the morphology and chemistry of the gaseous discs. We find a strong steepening of the metallicity gradient at early times for all four galaxies in our sample which is caused by a sudden increase in the cold gas disc size (up to a factor of 2) in combination with the supply of unenriched gas (∼0.75 dex lower compared to the main galaxy) by the merging dwarf galaxies. The mergers mostly affect the galaxy outskirts and lead to an increase in cold gas surface density of up to 200 per cent outside of ∼8 kpc. The addition of unenriched gas breaks the self-similar enrichment of the inter-stellar-medium and causes a dilution of the cold gas in the outskirts of the galaxies. The accreted stars and the ones formed later out of the accreted gas inhabit distinct tracks offset to lower [α/Fe] and [Fe/H] values compared to the main galaxy’s stars. We find that such mergers can contribute significantly to the formation of a second, low-α sequence as is observed in the MW.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1565-1576
Number of pages12
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2023


  • Galaxy: evolution
  • Galaxy: kinematics and dynamics
  • Galaxy: structure
  • galaxies: ISM
  • galaxies: formation
  • methods: numerical

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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