Science and Technology News

Friday, December 4, 2015

Light pillars: an optical illusion

by Airman Valerie Monroy
JBER Public Affairs

12/3/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- If you have driven around the base during hours of darkness, you may have noticed mysterious lights in the sky.

The columns of light apparently beaming directly upwards are only visible during very cold weather.

"When I first saw them, I didn't know what they were," said Heather Mims, wife of Airman 1st Class Patrick Mims, 703rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "I thought there was a big event, and they wanted to light up the sky."

The light pillars are an optical phenomenon where columns of light can be seen emanating from a light source, such as the lights around the flightline.

The higher the crystals in the atmosphere the taller the pillars are.

"What's happening is the light is reflecting off particles in the atmosphere," said Capt. Carl Densford, 3rd Operational Support Squadron Weather Flight commander. "Right now we've got a lot of fog out there so it's reflecting off the ice crystals."

The pillars are not physically over the lights, they're the collected light beams from the ice crystals, which reflect towards your eyes.

The crystals producing the pillars are roughly between you and the lights.

"Alaska never seems to fail on its true beauty," Mims said. "From the snowcapped mountains to the aurora borealis filling the night sky, these light pillars are just one more thing to add to the list."

When ice crystals float in the air around you, pillars can even be seen around streetlights a few meters away.

"The snow pillars just remind me that beauty is all around us, and we just have to stop and take a minute to notice," Mims said.

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