It’s the extremely cold air that causes this beautiful, almost extra-terrestrial sight. Over the past week, record-setting cold spilled over much of Canada and the eastern United States, sending temperatures plummeting into the single digits. Wind chills dropped to minus-30 across the northern Plains and Upper Midwest.
While the arctic cold wreaked havoc on people and property (busting pipes, exacerbating the hazard of icy roads, etc.), it also produced a dazzling atmospheric display of epic proportions in the form of these light pillars.
Light pillars are an atmospheric optical phenomenon in which vertical bands of light appear to stream off light objects or surfaces on Earth. They occur when light is reflected off tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. The light source can be anything from the sun (“solar” or “sun” pillars), to the moon (“lunar” or “moon” pillars), to streetlights. Light pillars can be seen at any time of the day.
The color and size of light pillars can tell you a lot about what’s going on in the atmosphere, as well as your surroundings. For example, if the pillars are multicolored (as opposed to all white), they are being caused by artificial lights; they are taking on the predominant color of the light source, which means a city is nearby. If light pillars extend high up into the sky, that’s a sign that ice crystals are suspended high into the atmosphere. If the pillars are very short or resemble something closer to a halo near the Earth’s surface, that means the ice crystals are hovering very close to the ground, indicating an extremely cold air mass.
Since light pillars need dense, cold air composed mostly of ice crystals to form, they are most common in Arctic and Antarctic regions because of the exceptionally cold air inherent to those places. If you see them, bundle up.
Want more ice pillars? Ask and you shall receive!
Weather is awesome. #cwgpicoftheweek
For more stunning photos from photographer Ray Majoran, check out his Instagram page.