Observations of molecular clouds in metal-poor environments typically find that they have much higher star formation rates than one would expect based on their observed CO luminosities and the molecular gas masses that are inferred from them. This finding can be understood if one assumes that the conversion factor between CO luminosity and H2 mass is much larger in these low-metallicity systems than in nearby molecular clouds. However, it is unclear whether this is the only factor at work, or whether the star formation rate of the clouds is directly sensitive to the metallicity of the gas.
To investigate this, we have performed numerical simulations of the coupled dynamical, chemical and thermal evolution of model clouds with metallicities ranging from 0.01 to 1 Z⊙. We find that the star formation rate in our model clouds has little sensitivity to the metallicity. Reducing the metallicity of the gas by two orders of magnitude delays the onset of star formation in the clouds by no more than a cloud free-fall time and reduces the time-averaged star formation rate by at most a factor of 2. On the other hand, the chemical state of the clouds is highly sensitive to the metallicity, and at the lowest metallicities, the clouds are completely dominated by atomic gas. Our results not only confirm that the CO-to-H2 conversion factor in these systems depends strongly on the metallicity, but also show that the precise value is highly time-dependent, as the integrated CO luminosity of the most metal poor clouds is dominated by emission from short-lived gravitationally collapsing regions. Finally, we find evidence that the star formation rate per unit H2 mass increases with decreasing metallicity, owing to the much smaller H2 fractions present in our low-metallicity clouds.