Light pillars dazzle viewers in eastern Iowa over the weekend

An explanation for what those lights were in the sky, called light pillars, above some eastern Iowa cities on Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Published: Dec. 18, 2022 at 9:12 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - An optical phenomenon appeared in the sky in parts of eastern Iowa on Saturday night and early Sunday morning, drawing a lot of attention for those that were lucky enough to see them.

The effect is known as light pillars. It’s something that occurs during the winter months on occasion when conditions are just right. Typically, it happens in very cold air masses when moisture in the air would be more likely to be in the form of ice crystals.

Those crystals, typically of a flat plate variety, slowly drift through the atmosphere and usually orient themselves parallel to the ground. As a result, light from ground sources like streetlights, buildings, or other bright lights reflects off of them from the air back down to the ground. To our eyes, it appears as if this light is originating from where it reflects, which comes in the form of a pillar of diffuse light extending upward directly from the light source.

Sometimes, these can also be seen during times of blowing snow, depending on the shape of the snowflakes themselves. And, it’s similar, but not the same, to how sun dogs develop. Both are interesting atmospheric phenomena that are more commonly seen in the winter (but sun dogs, and sun pillars can happen in the summer, too).

Some people contacted us and referred to them as the Northern Lights. They do have some similarity in appearance to the aurora borealis, but with distinct differences. First, light pillars are the same color of their originating source. In urban areas, that’s usually the white or pale orange color that streetlights are. Second, light pillars do not move at all, just fade in or out depending on the density of the ice crystals in the air. Aurora tends to shimmer, or even change shape.

We also received multiple pictures of the light pillars from last night. Add your own to our Weather bubble on YouNews!