John Ashley in northwestern Montana caught a beautiful display of light pillars (above) – after capturing an aurora earlier that night (below) – on January 3, 2016. He wrote:
Two very different pillars of light showed up to bookend my comet chasing trip during the wee hours this morning. Before Comet Catalina appeared, the northern lights rose over Glacier National Park and reflected nicely in the icy North Fork River, at a balmy minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit [-15 Celsius]. The aurora was visible for less than an hour, faint enough that I could not detect any color with my old eyes. Camera picked up yellow and magenta but none of our most common color, green.
On my 04:30 a.m. drive home, I just had to pull over and photograph the light pillars over a local gas station.
From the Atmospheric Optics website:
Columns of light apparently beaming directly upwards from unshielded (and wastefully polluting) lights are sometimes visible during very cold weather. Plate shaped ice crystals, normally only present in high clouds, float in the air close to the ground and their horizontal facets reflect light back downwards. The pillars are not physically over the lights or anywhere else in space for that matter ~ like all halos they are purely the collected light beams from all the millions of crystals which just happen to be reflecting light towards your eyes or camera.
Perhaps even more commonly than light pillars from artificial lights, people also see sun pillars. Read more and see photos of light pillars and sun pillars here.
Bottom line: Light pillars over Columbia Falls, Montana, and an aurora over Glacier National Park, Montana, on January 3, 2016.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.