Understanding extreme quasar optical variability with CRTS: I. Major AGN flares


There is a large degree of variety in the optical variability of quasars and it is unclear whether this is all attributable to a single (set of) physical mechanism(s). We present the results of a systematic search for major flares in AGN in the Catalina Real-time Transient Survey as part of a broader study into extreme quasar variability. Such flares are defined in a quantitative manner as being atop of the normal, stochastic variability of quasars. We have identified 51 events from over 900,000 known quasars and high probability quasar candidates, typically lasting 900 days and with a median peak amplitude of $Delta m = 1.25$ mag. Characterizing the flare profile with a Weibull distribution, we find that nine of the sources are well described by a single-point single-lens model. This supports the proposal by Lawrence et al. (2016) that microlensing is a plausible physical mechanism for extreme variability. However, we attribute the majority of our events to explosive stellar-related activity in the accretion disk: superluminous supernovae, tidal disruption events, and mergers of stellar mass black holes.