What is a sun pillar, or light pillar? They’re beautiful!

Dawn sky, orange fading to blue above, with a glowing, vertical yellow-white column of light.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Laura Lea Evans in Reno, Nevada, caught this sun pillar at dawn Sunday. She wrote: “While waiting for the sun to crest, I was entranced by the sun pillar leading up to the rise. One of the best versions of a pillar ever spotted locally.” Thank you, Laura!

What are sun pillars, and light pillars?

Sun pillars and light pillars are beams of light that extend vertically upward (or downward) from a bright light source, such as the sun or another bright light low on the horizon. They can be 5 to 10 degrees high and sometimes even higher. In fact, they might lengthen or brighten as you gaze at them.

They’re beautiful and wondrous. And they’re also the source of some UFO reports!

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Cloudy night with vertical pillars of light coming up from distant town.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Diane Rains captured this group of light pillars in Hudson, Wisconsin, on November 19, 2022. Diane wrote: “A fairly rare occurrence, light pillars can grow from ground lights on cold winter nights when conditions are just right. Hexagonal ice crystals that normally reside high in the atmosphere descend toward the ground and reflect light, creating a stunning, illuminated curtain effect.” Thank you, Diane!

What makes them?

Sun pillars or light pillars form when sunlight (or another bright light source) reflects off the surfaces of millions of falling ice crystals associated with thin, high-level clouds, for example, cirrostratus clouds. The ice crystals have roughly horizontal faces. They are falling through Earth’s atmosphere, rocking slightly from side to side.

Light pillars in the distance with metal wheel in foreground.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Sheryl R. Garrison of Southern Alberta, Canada, captured this image on March 9, 2023, and wrote: “Light pollution isn’t something a photographer seeks, but on this night, with a temperature of 3F, no wind, and plate crystals, I had to go out and shoot the light pillars. Les Cowley at Atmospheric Optics gives a wonderful explanation of this optic on his website.” Thank you, Sheryl!

When is the best time to see them?

You’ll most often see sun pillars when the sun is low in the western sky before sunset, or low in the east just after the breaking of dawn. However, you might even see a sun pillar when the sun is below the horizon. On the other hand, you can see light pillars at any time of night.

They’re called sun pillars when the sun helps make them. But the moon or even streetlights can create this light phenomenon, too, in which case the name light pillar is more appropriate.

Sun behind clouds with a sun pillar shooting up and a tree in the foreground.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Mohammad Adeel captured this sun pillar near Sukheki, Punjab, Pakistan, on January 8, 2023, and wrote: “I was travelling on the highway when my eyes suddenly caught a beam of light going straight up the sky. So I made a stop to capture this beautiful sight.” Thank you, Mohammad!

UFO reports, and more resources

These pillars of light often prompt people to report sightings of UFOs. They can sometimes look strange! In fact, light pillars trigger a lot of UFO reports over Niagara Falls, where the mist from the rush of descending water interacts with the city’s many upward facing spotlights. Light pillars do appear frequently over Niagara Falls, especially during the winter.

By the way, Les Cowley’s great website Atmospheric Optics is a wonderful place to go and learn more about sun pillars.

Sun pillar photos from the EarthSky community

Submit your recent photo here.

Light pillars in the background with a bridge and trees in the foreground.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Sheryl R, Garrison of Southern Alberta, Canada, captured this image on March 10, 2023 and wrote: “The Lethbridge Viaduct—longest and highest of its kind in the world. For perspective on the light pillars captured in this image, the trestle bridge is 314 feet high. One more round of late-in-the-season pillars created by plate-shaped crystals, freezing temperatures, and artificial light sources.” Thank you, Sheryl!
Over a highway and past bare tree limbs a glowing orange pillar shoots vertically into the sky.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Russell Hume caught this sun pillar at sunset in York, Maine, on December 2, 2022. Sun pillars don’t last long, but they’re a spectacular sight! Thank you, Russell!
Orange sunset clouds, with a horizontal plume of light going upward from the horizon next to dark trees.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Penelope Parson from Brooklin, Maine, captured this photo of a solar pillar on January 8, 2021, just after sunset. She explained that she has “never seen a sun pillar!” Thank you, Penelope!
Orange, yellow and red banded sunrise sky with faint but distinct yellow beam of light extending upward from horizon.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Susan Ogan in Marblehead, Massachusetts, captured this photo of a sun pillar on December 30, 2020. She wrote: “This image was taken at sunrise. I took it in honor of all the people who are grieving a loss of someone special. I frequently photograph sunrises and was awestruck by this rare sun pillar and am reminded that there is a pathway to the heavens and we are all connected through the beauty of the sun. Stand strong.” Beautiful! Thank you, Susan.

Bottom line: In the right conditions, you can see vertical shafts of light extending upward or downward from the sun or other bright light sources. These are called sun pillars or light pillars, and are caused by light reflecting from hexagonal ice crystals drifting in Earth’s atmosphere.

March 15, 2023

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