What Causes These Pillars of Light to Form in the Atmosphere?

The phenomenon can often be seen at far northern latitudes, but a blast of winter air has brought it south.

By Sarah Gibbens
Published 29 Dec 2017, 13:22 GMT

They look like beams of light from an alien spaceship, but light pillars are definitely of this world.

The name describes a weather phenomenon during which narrow rods of light appear to extend from the sky to the ground.

The effect is normally seen in far northern regions closer to the Arctic. But thanks to the blast of cold weather sweeping the United States it was observed this week as far south as Ohio.

Northern Lights display with strong light pillars appears during a geomagnetic solar storm on the south coast of Iceland.
Photograph by Mike Theiss, National Geographic Creative

The appearance of light pillars appearing below the farthest northern latitudes is so rare that they have been reported as UFOs in the past.

Photographer Mike Vielhaber from News 5 Cleveland snapped photos that show dozens of blueish white beams sprawled across the horizon.

According to the website Atmospheric Optic, the optical illusion is created when cold winter air allows millions of flat ice crystals to descend lower to the ground. When light from street lamps hits the crystals, it creates the appearance of a thin, tall rod.

While the light pillars in Vielhaber's photo appear to be white, they can take on whatever hue illuminates them. Light pillars that form over street lamps are often tinted orange.

These pillars of light are often best seen at night, but that's not the only time that light beams can suddenly appear in the sky. When light from a rising or setting sun strikes ice crystals it creates what are known as sun pillars. These rods of light often take on the rosy red and orange hues of the sun moving above or below the horizon.

Light pillars like those spotted in Ohio are generally seen at a midway point between the light source and the viewer. When crystals are higher in the atmosphere, or the light source is closer, they can appear to form directly overhead, like an atmospheric chandelier.

Low-hanging ice crystals have also been known to create a number of other strange atmospheric displays, like sun dogs and sun halos.

Light pillars have been observed in the UK, though rarely. The last sighting was in 6th April this year, where early risers from Dorset across to Derbyshire witnessed the strange phenomenon at sunrise, though it was not as spectacular as those witnessed in the US.  

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