“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.
It has to be brutally cold and the air must be calm
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.
Weather conditions need to be virtually wind-free, very stable and quite cold.
More light pillars possible as coldest air of the season arrives this week
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.