These Stunning Light Pillars Are The Polar Vortex’s Way of Saying Sorry

Not all winter phenomena are problems

light pillars
J-P Korpi-Vartiainen

Cold weather—really cold weather—can cause some pretty weird stuff. Frost quakes send people running for bomb shelters (or rather, to Twitter). Lake sand freezes into giant dirty boulders. And never mind the ice spouts.

But to make up for the many inconveniences, chilly temperatures give us beauty, too. One night owl photographer was recently delighted when he looked outside to find stunning pillars of light rising into the southern Ontario sky. Ohio was treated to a similar sight last month.

You may be thinking that the Rapture has come at last. But, actually, light pillars are a cold-weather phenomenon that occur when light refracts off tiny discs of ice floating close to the ground. These types of ice crystals usually evaporate before they reach lower altitudes, but sometimes a polar vortex comes along and gives us ice fog (see above, under inconveniences). While rare in warmer climes, light pillars are seen frequently in Niagara Falls’ winter mist and are sometimes reported as UFOs.

A light pillar’s light usually comes from natural sources—i.e. the moon, though solar pillars also exist—but these particular pillars reflected off the artificial glow of civilization and thus adopted their colours, giving the scene a distinct aurora borealis feel. If Batman had an Alaskan cousin, this would almost certainly be his signal.

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