What Are Light Pillars? Keep Your Eyes Open For This Mystical Cold Weather Phenomenon

Few things are "good" about living in a super cold place post-holidays. No sun, no fun, no leaving the house without at least two layers everywhere, and no snow-ventures — unless it gets above, like, five degrees. But recently, a Canadian man witnessed a rare natural phenomenon that had everyone asking, "Wait — what are light pillars?!" OK, first, they're not Photoshopped. And second, they're not evidence of alien abductions. I promise.

When Timothy Joseph Elzinga, a photographer and YouTuber from North Bay, Ontario, was awakened at 1:30 a.m. by his two-year-old son last week, he was, to say the least, a little irked. But upon looking outside, Elzinga was more... mystified? Stunned? Maybe a little freaked out? "It looked like someone from Star Trek was trying to beam people up," said Elzinga in an interview with CBC News.

What Elzinga and the neighbors who gathered outside that night saw seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie: Huge columns of green, yellow and red light beaming from an unknown source in the night sky, coming directly down to Earth. What they saw were light pillars.

Light pillars fall into the category of atmospheric phenomena, which occur when natural light interacts with ice crystals in the atmosphere.

Timmy Joe Elzinga/Wikimedia Commons

According to Time and Date, light pillars occur in cold, arctic atmospheres and can be divided into two categories: solar pillars and lunar pillars. These optical phenomena present as huge columns of light above or below a light source; they are the product of light reflecting off flat ice crystals in the air close to the earth's surface.

Christoph Geisler/Wikimedia Commons

Though they're similar in appearance to the Aurora Borealis, light pillars aren't related to the famous Northern Lights, which present as "dancing" light across the night sky but are "actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun" that have entered the Earth's atmosphere, according to Canada's Northern Lights Centre.

While light pillars are lesser known and lesser observed, they have the potential to occur in more places, particularly throughout the United States and Canada — essentially anywhere where it's cold often and for long periods of time. Residents of New York, Ohio, Wyoming, California, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Alaska have all witnessed light pillars over the past few years, as have Canadians and Swedes.

Mugregg/Wikimedia Commons

Want to see some for yourself? The best times are, unfortunately, deep night and the moments before a sunrise — you know, when it's coldest out and the only place you want to be is in your bed. But if you're willing to brave the elements, go for it. Who knows, maybe one day one of those light pillars will be a UFO. Like, light pillars are cool, but that would be cooler.