If You Ever See This In The Night Sky, This Is What You're Really Seeing

January 27, 2016

No, this is not an alien abduction, although it sure looks like a scene from Independence Day or This Is The End.

light pillars
Light pillars over Alaska / Credit: reddit

These are light pillars, photographed on a cold winter night in Alaska.

When it's very cold and very still, moisture in the air can form crystals that are flat hexagonal plates, and they will tend to orient horizontally as they fall. When the air is full of horizontal slowly falling ice crystals, they will reflect light sources that are directly below them and not those to the side.

This makes it look like there's a beam shooting up from any light source on the ground.

light pillars
Credit: Wikipedia / Christoph Geisler in Wyoming

But unlike a light beam, a light pillar is not physically located above or below the light source. Its appearance of a vertical column is an optical illusion.

This one, however, might be the single most amazing optical phenomena I have ever seen. It was taken on Jan. 13, 2016, by Mia Heikkilä in Eura, Finland.

light pillars
Credit: Mia Heikkilä

What you're seeing is a map of the city projected vertically into the sky. And it's reversed due to the crystals reflecting the light, together with Heikkilä's viewing angle. You can actually trace the streets in the sky using the lights as a reference. Incredible.

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