A sun pillar gooses the sky

By Phil Plait | December 28, 2009 7:18 am

Regular readers know I’m fascinated with sky phenomena. On December 26, 2009, around 4:30 p.m. local time, I happened to look out my office window and saw a gorgeous beam of orange light shooting straight up into the sky out of the sunset. I rushed outside with my camera and got this shot of it:

[Click to embiggen.]

Isn’t that pretty? I think it’s a sun pillar, a vertical column of light caused by the setting sun’s light being reflected off of the flat surfaces of hexagonal ice crystals in the air. Given that it was several degrees below freezing when I shot this, ice crystals in the air isn’t a totally crazy idea.

However, I can’t be sure this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill crepuscular ray, just those normal beams of light you see coming from the setting Sun as it’s broken up by clouds near the horizon. But it’s rare to see a single ray like that, and much rarer to see it beaming straight up like that.

As I was taking this shot, I heard honking coming from the north that I instantly knew was coming from geese. I waited a moment, and then hundreds of geese in formation flew right into the shot! Awesome, and very scenic. I was able to get some pictures, but had to stop down the camera to get the geese, and that introduced noise (the speckly grainy look in digital images) into the sky. I fiddled with the contrast a bit to show the geese, and the picture still looks a little "grainy" but cool:

There were several V-formations of geese this size going by over the course of a minute or two, and during that time the pillar faded, as you can see in this shot. Still, what a sight!

This is the kind of thing you see when you open your eyes and look up. If we could take every human on the planet one at a time, hold their hand, and simply show them this, then I just bet this world would be a better place.

Life is beautiful. You just have to notice it.

Comments (50)

  1. Daniel J. Andrews

    The world is a beautiful and marvelous place., Phil. As you said, if only more people would take the time to look up….and also look around and look everywhere, perhaps we’d could make the world a better place to live for all species, including us.

  2. Brian T.

    Recently, my wife notices me craning my neck when riding in the car or walking out of a building. She asks, “What are you looking at?”, and I just reply, “Up.”

  3. Zucchi

    ZERO:
    “*yawn*”

    My God — it’s as if S.J. Perelman has returned to life (as a mindless zombie).

  4. Zucchi

    Phil, I miss the skies out West. Sometimes it’s beautiful here in Georgia, but the sky doesn’t look as big, somehow.

  5. Sadly, it’s easy to mistake this for lens flare in the picture. Perhaps you should have taken a picture with the sun itself obscured to demonstrate that it’s atmospheric.

  6. Dave B

    If only you’d had the time to set up bracketed exposures… that image just screams for the HDR treatment.

  7. Kevin

    Thank you Phil. I was hoping you got a photo or two when I saw your FB post about this the other day.

  8. elaine

    Very cool! And timely, too – I saw a sun pillar last week, and was impressed by how beautiful and cool it was. But I didn’t know what caused the phenomenon, beyond a vague “reflections off ice crystals” guess. Now I do – and I’ll be looking for more cool reflections, too.

  9. Ingmar Bergman, when asked why he preferred to work in Sweden, replied that once during filming a flock of geese flew overhead. Everyone stopped to look, and no-one was worried about having to re-shoot the take.

    Many (but not all) of his films are quite bleak. In person, though, he seems to have been an incredibly joyful chap. There is an interview made just a few months before his death where this really comes through.

  10. Sir Eccles

    Looks like project blue beam to me, or maybe swamp gas reflecting off Venus, or maybe the virgin mary but then again that’s what they want us to think!

  11. @ Brian T:

    Me, too.

    Here in Southern California, we don’t often get really spectacular clouds, the likes of which other parts of the country find “ordinary.” When they do show up, I’m frequently stepping off curbs, banging into mailboxes, and generally playing the role of absent-minded professor.

    Apart from a really poofy stratocumulous, I’m rather fond of cirrus clouds. They are an amazingly good barometer of weather changes in these parts.

  12. I’m reminded of one of my favorite songs from college, which includes the line “If you’ve never stared off into the distance, then your life is a shame.”

    I can’t seem to remember who it’s by, though.

  13. KAE

    I recently took a few photos of some sundogs (parhelia). It’s always amazing to see things like this.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mainyard/4216475223/sizes/l/

    Hope it’s OK to post the link.

  14. Harknights

    What is sad is that if you did take everyone in the world and pointed up in the sky they might just as likely say. this is a message from X that we should kill Y.

    X = vague something that they believe in.
    Y = Group or Person they don’t like.

    So I guess the formula would be

    X ^ -1 = Y * 0

    or something.

  15. Darren Garrison

    An obligatory “I take pictures, too” reply:

    A sun pillar I captured in January a few years back:

    http://s313.photobucket.com/albums/ll394/darrengarrison/nature/?action=view&current=sp2.jpg

    And birds with clouds (same location, different date):

    http://s313.photobucket.com/albums/ll394/darrengarrison/nature/?action=view&current=sunbirds2.jpg

  16. Stephen P

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think that can be a sun pillar. I understand that they are formed by light shining through ice crystals at very high altitude. The only clouds I would expect to see behind it would be a translucent layer of cirrus (and that was the situation with the only sun pillar I have ever seen). Here the “pillar” is in front of a whole chunk of what looks like altocumulus, which doesn’t seem right.

  17. Adam H

    I bet if you showed this to every single human, a good portion of them would think, “If only I had a shotgun, those geese wouldn’t stand a chance.”

    The world is a beautiful place, but I’ve known quite a few people who don’t see it, even when it’s staring them right in the face.

  18. DWM

    Thanks, Phil
    I always enjoy your photos and the descriptions that go with them.
    Yes, and the various comments are both entertaining and (sometimes) knowledgable :)

  19. Jonathan

    Thank you for not HDR’ing this picture. HDR is a plague.

    Much love, J.

  20. earth2allie

    I am 99.9% positive that is a sun pillar. Would be 100% if I’d seen it in person. The only reason I think the high altitude is important is so that ice crystals can form… but if it’s really cold, they can form at lower altitudes. I’ve seen unmistakable sun pillars against a few different types of clouds. Nice one, BA!

    @Zucchi, I feel your pain re being in Georgia. I am always chasing down interesting atmospheric/astronomical phenomena. We don’t really get the good stuff down here. Nice sunsets and sundogs lately though!

    Keep looking up, everybody!

  21. Valdis Kletnieks

    I have to go with Stephen P on this one – this doesn’t look like a sun pillar, this looks more like a single distinct crepuscular ray.

    http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap050831.html

    Sun dogs and pillars are actually very common – during the winter months here in southwest Virginia, I usually see at least one a week, and I’ve seen up to 4 days in the same week. A bit rarer during the summer, but they happen.

    Of course, I *see* one a week because I by nature *look* at the clouds almost every time I’m outdoors – and I’m often heading home right at the best time for such things to be spotted. I don’t see too many halos, because I’m usually in my office that time of day.

    In my opinion, the premier site for all sorts of atmospheric optic effects:

    http://www.atoptics.co.uk/

  22. These phenomena are wonderful and are there to be seen so often if only people know what to look for. We had some lovely sundogs here in Oxford today.

    On a recent flight we had the opposite phenomenon to the one you show here, a subsun, where the light from the sun reflects of ice crystals below you. Along with a great 22 degree halo this was a lovely display. Photos here: http://jonstraveladventures.blogspot.com/2009/12/having-not-stepped-foot-in-british.html

  23. PhilG

    Ha Ha, funny how your scepticism is suspended for your own observations :)
    This is actually just an ordinary beam of sunlight shining between two far clouds and reflecting on the underside of the nearer clouds. It is not vertical, in fact it is probably nearly horizontal. Maybe.

  24. ethanol

    I’m in boulder for christmas and driving late at night on the 23rd noticed a similar effect, although it manifested itself as a long thin column of light shooting up from every streetlight and headlight. Took me a while to figure out what was going on. Yay science

  25. Denni M.

    Phil,

    While at Chabot Space & Science Center it was my phone number people called to report “strange lights.” 100% of the time I could explain the effect, hopefully to their satisfaction, (though some didn’t want to have it explained away). But I always thanked them for “looking up” and just noticing what was there. Sigh. SO many don’t.

  26. dcsohl

    Definitely a sun pillar. APOD has several other images of sun pillars; compare them to Phil’s, and I think it’s clear that Phil caught a sun pillar and not a happenstance vertical crepuscular ray.

  27. Chip

    Sometimes we also see a large ring encircling the full moon high at night. I believe this is a similar sky phenomenon caused by ice crystals.

  28. Sun pillars are beautiful things, and not all that rare – but easily ignored by the vast majority of people. One of my favorite things is to point them out to people I’m with, who could just as easily have seen them on their own if they had looked.

    Here’s my photo essay of a morning dog-walking adventure with a sun pillar:

    http://anothermonkey.blogspot.com/2006/04/untold-tales-sun-pillar.html

  29. Timothy from Boulder

    Coincidence of coincidences, I happened to be getting into my car at the same moment on the way home from a friend’s house in Boulder which is located in the same general area as Phil’s house. I too was struck by the beauty of the sun pillar and cursed myself for not having my camera with me. Having witnessed both sun pillars and crepuscular rays I can say with certainty that the behavior of the column of light–where it ended vertically, its geometry with respect to the clouds, no hint whatsoever of other crepuscular rays that would be visible to the eye but not show up in the photo, the temperature of the air, the fact that it remained vertical as I drove a considerable distance to the south–is completely consistent with a sun pillar and not a single crepuscular ray.

    I even saw the huge multi-branched V’s and W’s of geese winging their way south in as large a group of formations as I’ve seen in a long time. Teach me to not carry my camera with me!

  30. earth2allie

    @Harold Really nice sun pillar pics! There it is folks.

  31. JennS

    EPOD has terrific sky phenomena pictures
    http://epod.usra.edu/

  32. OMG! It’s a sign of ..something. Repent at once, I say!

  33. Imagine that — an astronomer being fascinated with sky phenomena! Beautiful pic Phil! :-)

  34. Mount

    I’ve noticed a similar thing on the road at night when it’s snowing. Sometimes when a car is heading towards you from the other side of a hill, you can know they’re there before you see them because of the light pillars shooting up into the sky from the headlights. I always thought it looked kinda cool.

  35. MJBUtah

    This is so funny, because on 12/23 I caught one too coming out of the grocery store and took a picture with my phone that didn’t come out very well but it was the most defined sun pillar I’ve ever witnessed and I almost sent you the picture. I’m glad I didn’t because you got your very own a couple days later. (Merry Christmas!)

    The best part? I went home and told my husband, and he whipped out HIS phone and showed me a picture he took of it too. We were no where near each other at the time.

  36. Michelle R

    This reminds me of a day when I was going to the college… I get off the bus in front of my college and happen to look up…

    There was THOUSANDS of geese (Or other types of birds. Probably geese, this is Quebec City, but I know nothing about birds) migrating. It was FILLING UP THE SKY. It was grandiose, and it lasted such a long time. I had never seen such a massive migration before.

    The worst part is that this was a crowdy area. And I was the only one staring up in wonder. What’s wrong with everybody?

    EDIT: Oh and I wasn’t gaping. Thousands of birds up there, flying over my head… I had that weird feeling that opening my mouth would’ve been a bad idea.

  37. Matt Wood

    Wow! I actually took a very similar picture in Vermont just a few days before this. Great shot; it’s nice to know the reason behind the sight.

  38. csrster

    I saw one of these in Trysil, Norway last week. The temperature was about -18C and the sky was clear. It was absolutely spectacular. A curious feature was that there was also a secondary pillar like a short vertical rainbow somewhere off to one side – near where one might expect to see a sundog. After sunset, all the artificial lights in town also showed the same effect as if they were spotlights pointing directly upwards, but much more narrowly focussed than any real spotlight I’ve ever seen.

  39. csrster

    Mount:

    Just saw your post above. Yes, I also saw exactly this phenomenon with car headlamps the same evening.

  40. MJMurphy

    Boom de ata
    Boom de ata
    Boom de ata
    BOOM DE ATA!

  41. Stephen P

    @dcsohl: OK, apparently sun pillars can appear in front of lower-level clouds then. Thanks.

  42. Michelle R. @ 36, I had a similar experience once! Birds covering the entire visible sky! Not crowding each other, but – everywhere! It was amazing!

  43. StevoR

    Nice picture. Thanks. I love seeing stuff like this – in person and via others cameras too. :-)

    Life is beautiful. You just have to notice it.

    That last line there is spot on too. :-)

  44. BethK

    Thank you for sharing your sun pillar picture. On December 18th, we had a wonderful snowstorm coming in, and I got pictures of a great halo complex including circumzenithal arc, 120-degree parhelion (not in this photo), 22-degree halo, and sun dogs:
    http://www.spacew.com/gallery/image006037.html

    I dragged my husband outside to see. A neighbor was walking his dog and he took pictures, too.

    Then on a trip to North Carolina on Saturday, I saw another CZA. It’s tough taking halo photos from the car, so that’s not posting quality. But I’m considering keeping a journal of how often I see these because they are visible in many areas more often than people expect.

    I want to shout “LOOK UP!”

  45. Alan

    Oh wow, i saw the same thing last night driving home in Santa Monica, i just thought it was a weird reflection of my window. I was mesmerized by it regardless.

  46. i saw a flock of geese (couldn’t be sure it was geese actually) in the middle of the night in Brooklyn – so lovely – gliding silently thru the night sky a few weeks ago.. huge chevron formation

  47. RichardC

    BethK, just looked at your pictures. Beautiful!

  48. Mary B.

    Sun Pillars are so lovely, aren’t they?. Although I read that they are not that uncommon, I have seen only 2 and believe me, I am a ‘looker upper’. The one I saw at the lake one summer was like a gorgeous spot light. A couple of us were standing there admiring it for some time. Finally, it dawned on me to go back and get my camera. When I looked at the pictures, I realized there were faint Sun Dogs with the Piller.
    http://doyoulookup.shutterfly.com/30

  49. Bryan Feir

    @Thomas:
    A quick Google search turns up Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby, by Counting Crows.

  50. Wendy

    I saw a big, beautiful sun pillar for the first time on Dec 23, in Saskatoon! I had never seen anything like it before!

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