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Electric Arc Caused New York Skyline to Glow Blue

No, it wasn’t an alien invasion

The night sky from the Upper West Side of Manhattan glows blue after mishap at Queens facility run by Con Edison. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
smithsonian.com

The city that never sleeps never quite dims, either. The night skies of New York City are always illuminated by the millions of lights that dot the five boroughs. But an eerie glow that emanated from Queens on Thursday night was not one that people had seen before. It began with a boom and a plume of smoke that settled over the city skyline, lingering for several minutes and turning different shades of electric blue. In the wake of the flash, an unsettling hum reverberated through the air.

People wondered whether aliens had landed. One Peter Dipietrantonio told the New York Times that his girlfriend packed a duffel bag and ran onto the street.

“She was ready to go,” he said.

Fortunately, the strange incident did not stem from extraterrestrial invasion or any other type of nefarious activity, as the NYPD was quick to assure residents. Instead, a Queens facility run by the power company Con Edison malfunctioned, causing an electrical flash to spurt into the air.

Initial reports stated that there had been a fire or an explosion involving “some electrical transformers,” but Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee told CNN on Friday morning that neither fire nor explosion had occurred. Instead, reports WABC, the company said in a statement that the fluorescent blue skies were caused by an “electrical fault on the 138,000-volt equipment,” which led to “sustained electrical arc flash that was visible across a wide area.”

Mary Beth Griggs of the Verge explains that electric arcs occur when powerful currents pass through the air, creating plasma, or charged gas. This phenomenon happens in nature; electric arcs are what we see when lightning flashes across the sky, caused by currents that ionize molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. Thunder is another sign of this change—sound waves are produced when heated air around lightning bolts expands—and McGee told CNN that the bangs people heard on Thursday night were likely connected to the electric arc hitting the ground in a “thunder and lightning effect.”

The cause of the fault is still under investigation, but transformers, which change electricity from one voltage to another, are sometimes susceptible to explosion-like events. “To keep everything cool and insulated inside, the transformers are filled with a liquid called transformer oil or mineral oil,” Grigg writes for the Verge. “Under normal situations, mineral oil—which is made from petroleum—works just fine. But when something goes wrong, it goes wrong with a vengeance.”

No one was hurt in Thursday night’s incident, and the fault caused only relatively minor disruptions. A few dozen homes lost power, and outages along the No. 7 subway line caused a suspension in service between certain stations. Rikers Island prison, which houses around 10,000 inmates, lost power for around 25 minutes, according to the Times. LaGuardia Airport was perhaps the hardest hit; all terminals were affected by power losses, according to CNN. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary ground stop, which subsequently disrupted flight schedules for several hours.

Con Edison said on Friday morning that all major transmission lines had been restored. New York, in other words, is back to its usual degree of chaos. (Or is it?)

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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