Ice Crystal Auroras? No, Just Light Pillars Up To Their Old Tricks

Light pillars formed when light reflects off flat fluttering ice crystal above the lights of the airbase in Duluth, Minn. last night. Credit: Bob King

I knew something was up when I got a Facebook post about a big aurora in the southwestern sky over Duluth last night. Huh? No aurora at my place, so I quickly checked a few aurora sites online. Nothing there either. Ten minutes later I was in the car on my way to pick up my daughter at the airport and it hit me. Light pillars.

Flat, hexagonal ice crystals floating in the air work together to reflect light from artificial lights, the sun and the moon to form light pillars. Credit: Dr. Keith C. Heidorn

Not far from the airport a long bank of snow hid the glare of lights shining from our Air National Guard airbase, but above them rose tall, colorful rays that could have easily been mistaken for the aurora borealis. Ice pillars form on very cold nights when countless ice crystals – often not even noticed with the eye – gently flutter to the ground with the their flat faces parallel to the ground. They reflect the lights below like tiny mirrors to create pillars of spikes of light above bright artificial light sources.

Earlier yesterday evening, a colorful corona circles full moon. Coronae form when light is scattered by minute water droplets in the clouds. Click photo to learn more. Credit: Bob King

I see them most often in approaching car headlights when the glare of the lights is still hidden by a rise in the road. They remind me of antennae. When your car is parked with the lights on, look just ahead of the beams and you’ll see the individual crystals sparking in the light.

As we learned a couple weeks back, winter is the time for all kinds of fascinating light crystal phenomena – halos, sun dogs, arcs, light pillars, coronae and more. All you need to do is look up, something all of you are already very good at doing.


10 Responses

  1. Guy S

    I got some nice shots of the lunar coronae as well last night.

    Tuesday evening last week had some great light pillars from cars and light posts. I was driving south on Hwy 53 near Twig wishing I had my camera with me.

    1. astrobob

      I just happened to have mine and a tripod because I was out photographing light pollution for a story I’m working on.

  2. Edward M. Boll

    I have noticed that. One time I saw the gleam of a headlight beam way up into the sky till the headlights cleared the Horizon. The snowlain landscape was beautiful under the Moon. The Sun brightened the wet road till I could hardly look at it today.

  3. Giorgio Rizzarelli

    Amazing light pillars shot Bob!

    Check Spaceweather today if you didn’t already: there’s an *awesome* Rhemann’s pic of comet Lovejoy!

  4. Brad

    After the series of storms moved off that dumped nearly 10 inches of snow over three days people were saying the same thing here. From where I live I could sort of see what people thought that but especially when I saw a Facebook post, the lights looked spectacular but knew it was no aurora. Wish I could track down the picture again for you.

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