We have carried out computer simulations to identify and characterize various thermally activated atomic scale processes that can play an important role in room temperature experiments where a metal tip is brought close to a metal surface. We find that contact formation between the tip and the surface can occur by a sequence of atomic hop and exchange processes which become active on a millisecond time scale when the tip is about 3-5 Angstrom from the surface. Adatoms on the surface are stabilized by the presence of the tip and energy barriers for diffusion processes in the region under the tip are reduced. This can cause adatoms to follow the tip as it is moved over the surface.
Physical Review Letters, 1996, Vol 77, Issue 25, p. 5067-5070