Saturday, January 10, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Arctic air brings light pillars to the Niagara Frontier

Light pillars are a natural phenomenon that only
occur when the temperature is cold enough.
The return of arctic air to the Niagara Frontier has been a mostly unwelcome experience. The painfully-cold temperatures and brutal wind chills make appreciating the outdoors impossible for most. Even if you do brave the elements, you won’t see much in the way of wildlife as they’ve hunkered down, too, and some have even gotten out of Dodge.

So, you end up appreciating Mother Nature in other ways. You take the beauty as it comes.

One of the more interesting sights appeared a few days back and might again in the next few days if the wind calms down – and that’s a big “if.”

That would be the visual phenomenon or optical illusion known as “light pillars.”

Some nights or early mornings while driving you might see what appear to be the lights from street lamps and parking lots stretching hundreds of feet into the sky as individual columns (or pillars). Even the headlights of oncoming vehicles might have light pillars going a few dozen feet into the night.

The sight is more pronounced as you drive from the rural areas into a city or village. If you are in the city limits you won’t get to appreciate them as much as the effect will be drowned out by so many lights being around you.

Light pillars are extremely beautiful, as they take on the color of the light source and a small commercial district can send dozens of these multi-hued spires skyward.

Light pillars are created by ice crystals being present in the atmosphere near ground level. Ice crystals are normal to the highest parts of the atmosphere and rarely make themselves known near the ground in the Lower 48. But, the coldest of air can make “diamond dust.” Diamond dust is actually a ground-level cloud that typically forms under clear or nearly clear skies, and some meteorologists call it “clear-sky precipitation.” It’s rare in Eastern Niagara County (1 to 4 days per year), but in Northern Canada, bouts of diamond dust may continue for a week at a time and are common for more than half the year.

As you get close to the North Pole, diamond dust can be found almost all year long.

That said, light pillars appear only in the most frigid of weather. I typically don’t see them until air temperatures get below 15 degrees. Anything higher than that is too close to 33 degrees — especially
when you consider the heat radiating from buildings and roadways — to create the environmental conditions necessary. There cannot be any wind, either, as it will displace the cloud and/or change the angle of the ice crystals within it.

Angle is critical. The plate-like ice crystals in diamond dust are actually falling and remain almost perfectly horizontal, which causes the lights below them to both reflect and refract across millions of crystals to make the pillars. What you see as the visual effect is not directly over the light source — the mirage, if you will, is actually between you and the light source.

It should be noted that while light pillars are rare on this side of the county, they are pretty common in the city of Niagara Falls. That’s because the mist from the falls becomes ground-level ice clouds on a regular basis. There pillars are so pronounced that UFO reports are extremely common in Niagara Falls because unknowing tourists don’t know what to make of the strange, colored lights in the sky.

So, while you struggle to find some sort of positive to come out of these bone-chilling temperatures, enjoy the sights they bring to us. Light pillars are unique, attractive, and, as some have shown, maybe even a little creepy.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where light pillars (and UFOs) aren’t very common. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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