The Enigmas on Earth
Pillars of Light

Photograph by Bradly J. Boner/Jackson Hole News & Guide

February 18, 2009--Light pillars scrape the night sky over Victor, Idaho, on January 26. Typically seen in polar regions, the vertical columns of light have been appearing along with frigid temperatures at lower latitudes this winter

diagram by Les Cowley/Atmospheric Optics.

Light pillars appear when artificial light (shown in diagram above) or natural light bounces off the facets of flat ice crystals wafting relatively close to the ground.
When the light source is close to the ground, the light pillar appears above the floating crystals. When the light comes from the sun or moon, the light pillar can appear beneath them, too, as the light refracts through the crystals.

Joseph N. Hall  2005
Light pillars above the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
The source is a pair of bright uncovered work lights a few thousand feet behind the trees.

Fairbanks, in Alaska

A light pillar is a visual phenomenon created by the reflection of light from ice crystals with near horizontal parallel planar surfaces. The light can come from the sun (usually at or low to the horizon) in which case the phenomenon is called a sun pillar or solar pillar. It can also come from the moon or from terrestrial sources such as streetlights.

Light pillar at sunset in Tuscon desert taken  in 11/24/2005 4:19Pm
exposure:1/160sec focal length 42mm Iso speed:ISO-200

Sun pillar, Finistère, Brittany

Since they are caused by the interaction of light with ice crystals, light pillars belong to the family of halos. The crystals responsible for light pillars usually consist of flat, hexagonal plates, which tend to orient themselves more or less horizontally as they fall through the air. Their collective surfaces act as a giant mirror, which reflects the light source upwards and/or downwards into a virtual image. As the crystals are disturbed by turbulence, the angle of their surfaces deviates some degrees from the horizontal orientation, causing the reflection (i.e. the light pillar) to become elongated into a column. The larger the crystals, the more pronounced this effect becomes. More rarely, column-shaped crystals can cause light pillars as well.

Unlike a light beam, a light pillar is not physically located above or below the light source. Its appearance of a vertical column is an optical illusion, resulting from the collective reflection off the ice crystals, only those of which that appear to lie in a vertical line direct the light rays towards the observer (similar to the reflection of a light source in a body of water).
Light pillars on a winter night in Laramie, Wyoming.

Sun pillar with Kite Surfers in San Francisco, California.

A lower sun pillar seen in the Antarctic.
Sun Pillars

We have to disagree. Let's take a look at the original article as it was published in the French popular science journal La Nature. It suffices to read the original text to unravel the mystery: the beam of light depicted here is nothing but a sun pillar, a well-known optical phenomenon that is caused when the light of a low Sun reflects off billions of ice-crystals in the atmosphere.

The bigger part of the article in La Nature is a letter by one Mr. TRINCANO, who observed the display from the French village of Logelbach in the morning of March 22, 1878 (actually the article mentions two different dates: March 22 and March 23).

The first engraving shows the pillar as it appeared around 6:30 a.m. local time.

On the second drawing, not printed in The Age of the UFO, we can see the solar disc rise from behind the mountains. 

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