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How Are the Solar Pillars That We See in the Sky Formed?

Solar pillars are beams of light that amaze those who are fortunate enough to observe them.

The sky dome is a treasure trove of optical phenomena. The behavior of light can be so unpredictable that even today, with the scientific knowledge we possess, many of these phenomena continue to amaze us to the point of taking our breath away. Solar pillars and pillars of light are part of the treasures that the vault gives us, and they have an explanation.

What Are Solar Pillars?

Solar pillars are beams of light that amaze those who are fortunate enough to observe them, as they rise vertically and constantly remind us of stories of extraterrestrial visitors with their spaceships. It is for this reason that they are both feared and admired because they awaken an air of suspense when they rise in the sky; however, there is nothing to fear because they are natural optical phenomena.

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They appear in different ways, as you may be lucky enough to see lots of them, as you may see a solitary beam rising in the sky; they do not always look the same way. This happens because the optical conditions are never the same, and the colors and number of solar pillars will depend on this.

[Photo: Crédito: Brocken Inaglory]

How Solar Pillars Are Formed

Solar pillars are formed when sunlight or other sufficiently bright light sources are reflected off the surface of millions of ice crystals that are either suspended in the atmosphere due to cold temperatures or comprise high-altitude clouds such as cirrostratus.

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When interacting with ice crystals, the beautiful phenomenon occurs because the crystals have flat hexagonal faces that tend to orient themselves horizontally as they fall across the sky. These small crystalline plates act as tiny mirrors that reflect the light source that is placed below them, hence requiring high-altitude clouds as the sun sets on the horizon. The result is a beautiful vertical halo of light. The more numerous and larger the crystals, the more pronounced the solar pillar will look.

Difference Between Solar Pillars and Light Pillars

Solar pillars necessarily require the light produced by our host star and occur during the day when the sun is positioned below the clouds. On the other hand, light pillars can occur thanks to other types of sources, such as the Moon or artificial lights, and that is why they can be seen during the night, although it must be said that they are formed under the same principle as solar pillars.

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[Photo: Crédito: Ray Majoran]

If you want to hunt solar pillars you should look for the right weather conditions, i.e. regions where the cold can transform atmospheric water droplets into crystals. Look at the sky when the sun is low and not when it is at its zenith. Remember that to see a completely vertical beam, the light source must fall below the crystals, otherwise, if you turn to see the sun at its zenith, you will be able to admire another phenomenon that is also part of the halos and that is a circumference with rainbow colors surrounding the sun.

Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera

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Cover photo by Thorleif Rødland

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