With a flash, the sky over New York City turned a mystical blue.
The spectacle, which appeared without warning on Thursday night, stunned observers. They sensed something was wrong—because, obviously, would you look at the freaking sky?—and quickly formulated some possible explanations. The theories leaned heavily on science fiction. Maybe the glow signaled the end of a massive battle between superheroes. Maybe it was an alien invasion. Maybe the apocalypse was nigh, and this, these eerie turquoise clouds over Queens, were the first sign that the end was near.
What people witnessed was much less dire: a quirk of electricity. Just after 9 p.m. local time, some equipment at an electrical power plant in the Astoria neighborhood short-circuited. (There was no explosion or fire, contrary to early reports.) According to the station’s operator, Con Edison, the malfunction produced something called an arc flash. A powerful electric current shot into the air and sent atoms of gas in the air into a state of excitement. When atoms become excited, they emit light, and different gases produce different colors. In this case, the atmospheric recipe resulted in a ghostly blue.
“No injuries, no fire, no evidence of extraterrestrial activity,” the New York Police Department tweeted, extinguishing most of the theories that had flooded social media.
Sorry to disappoint, but the eerie blue glow last night wasn’t an alien invasion. 🤷♂️👽 Our live #EarthCam in midtown #NYC captured the electrical arc flash as it turned the night sky blue! pic.twitter.com/3fY56xu1ug— EarthCam (@EarthCam) December 28, 2018
It was a joy to watch the discussion of the blue light unfold online. This strange December night encapsulated so much of what makes the internet great: the dissemination of captivating photos and videos in real time, a shared sense of camaraderie that transcends state lines and borders, and some pretty funny jokes. But the evening also tapped into something much older and more primal. We human beings have long been intrigued by strange lights in the sky. Like the blue glow over New York, these sights have baffled, scared, and mesmerized us, even when we’ve known their source.