When Alec Jones saw this sun pillar before dawn on April 6, 2017, he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He’d heard of the zodiacal light and wondered … could this be it? He wrote:
This shaft of light was visible for around 35 minutes before and up to dawn this morning from the Northumberland coast, northeast England. Would anyone like to confirm that this is zodiacal light or otherwise.
Reasonable question, because – if you’ve never seen either one, or seen them only in photos – you might think there are some similarities in the way these two sky phenomena look. Both extend up from a sunrise or sunset horizon, for example. But the zodiacal light – which is sunlight reflecting off grains of dust in outer space – can only be seen in a truly dark sky. A sun pillar, on the other hand, is likely to be seen shortly after sunset or before sunrise, as Alex saw this one. Sun pillars are strictly an atmospheric phenomenon. They’re formed by reflection by ice crystals drifting through Earth’s air.
Bottom line: Photo of a sun pillar before sunrise.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded 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.