Like something taken straight from a sci-fi movie, strange columns of light have been spotted recently across the northern United States, dancing up toward the night sky and mesmerizing viewers. “It was almost like I was looking at the northern lights because they were bouncing, moving and changing in appearance,” National Weather Service Meteorologist Bill Taylor told CNN when describing the photos of light pillars he took early this week in North Platte, Nebraska.
Fortunately for us, this is not an alien invasion or extraterrestrial activity, but rather an optical phenomenon courtesy of a cold, calm atmosphere.
Unless your fireplace, cozy blanket and favorite book are too inviting, you may be rewarded if you step outside and brave the elements this week. Make sure to bundle up because these spectacular colored beams of light only occur when temperatures are well below freezing.
Light pillars form in colder climates when ice particles near the ground are light enough to remain suspended in the air. If conditions are calm, the hexagonally shaped ice particles can become vertically stacked as they slowly drift through the atmosphere. Like a giant mirror in the sky, the collective ice surfaces reflect a light source — such as a street lamp, moonlight or sunlight — toward the viewer.
“The higher the crystals in the atmosphere, the taller the pillar,” according to the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Weather conditions need to be virtually wind-free, very stable and quite cold.
The temperature dropped to minus 20 Fahrenheit the night these photos were taken in North Platte, which was the coldest we’ve experienced since March 2019,” NWS Meteorologist Darren Snively told CNN Weather.
More light pillars possible as coldest air of the season arrives this week.
As an arctic plunge of air pushes farther south this week, more people may have the opportunity to witness this mysterious phenomenon. High temperatures will struggle to reach above 0 degrees this week in northern Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. The polar vortex is to blame. This feature, which is normally centered over the North Pole, has recently weakened, helping to displace very cold air into the United States.
“Latest model guidance continues to show that an arctic air mass will dominate the northern and central portions of the country into this weekend under the influence of a slow-moving polar vortex centered over the Canadian prairies,” the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center (WPC) says.
Light pillars are more common in the fall and winter, when temperatures are cold enough to form ice in the atmosphere.
Even though the beams of light appear to be radiating directly into the sky, something contradictory is happening to the viewer on the ground. The light source originally traveling into space is redirected toward your eyes as the flat-surfaced ice particles become vertically aligned.
Regardless of how it forms, this phenomenon is a real treat to witness. That is, if you are brave enough to endure the brutal cold.
Although no specific temperature threshold has been determined for light pillar formation, the mercury in the thermometer at ground level is typically below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the NWS. Since these temperatures are more common the farther north one lives, reports may be less frequent because of the remote nature of their occurrence.