What Are Sun Pillars Or Light Pillars?

Sun pillars are beams of light that extend vertically upward (or downward) from a bright light source, such as the sun or another bright light low on the horizon. They can be 5 to 10 degrees tall and sometimes even higher. They might lengthen or brighten as you gaze at them.

They’re beautiful and wondrous. They’re also the source of some UFO reports!

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Colorful sky just after sunset, with a horizontal plume of light going upward from the horizon next to dark trees.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Penelope Parson from Brooklin, Maine, captured this photo of a solar pillar on January 8, 2021, just after sunset. She explained that she has “never seen a sun pillar!.” Thank you Penelope!
Orange, yellow and red sky with faint but distinct yellow beam of light extending upward from horizon.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Susan Ogan in Marblehead, Massachusetts, captured this photo of a sun pillar on December 30, 2020. She wrote: “This image was taken at sunrise. I took it in honor of all the people who are grieving a loss of someone special. I frequently photograph sunrises and was awestruck by this rare sun pillar and am reminded that there is a pathway to the heavens and we are all connected through the beauty of the sun. Stand strong.” Beautiful! Thank you, Susan.
Cloudy red sunrise with yellowish to red thick column of light extending straight up from forested hills.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nicholas Holshouser captured this photo from the Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 412 in North Carolina, in the early morning of December 1, 2020. He wrote: “The first cold front of the season dropped temps into the teens (a bit below zero degrees C) along the Blue Ridge Parkway. As the fog rolled over the ridge behind me, sunlight (from below the horizon) began illuminating the cold air and created a beautiful sun pillar. The sun pillar extended even above the clouds. Easily the most perfect example of a sun pillar I’ve ever witnessed.” Thank you, Nicholas!
Orange sun rising over the ocean, with tall sun pillar above, brghter and dimmer as it passes through horizontal clouds.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nancy Ricigliano at Jones Beach, New York, caught this sun pillar on March 3, 2019.
Sun pillars or light pillars form when sunlight (or another bright light source) reflects off the surfaces of millions of falling ice crystals associated with thin, high-level clouds – for example, cirrostratus clouds. The ice crystals have roughly horizontal faces. They are falling through Earth’s atmosphere, rocking slightly from side to side.

When is the best time to see a sun pillar or light pillar? You’ll most often see sun pillars when the sun is low in the western sky before sunset, or low in the east just after the breaking of dawn. You might even see a sun pillar when the sun is below the horizon. Light pillars can be seen at any time of night.

2 photo, each of large sun in clouds with wide column of light above and below respectively.
Michael Busch captured this pair of photos on December 12, 2018, and wrote: “Incredible sun pillar above and then below the sun. Fire Island, New York.” Wow! Thanks, Michael.
They’re called sun pillars when the sun helps make them. But the moon or even streetlights can create this light phenomenon, too, in which case the name light pillar is more appropriate.

These pillars of light often prompt people to report sightings of UFOs. They can sometimes look strange! There are said to be a lot of UFO reports caused by light pillars over Niagara Falls, where the mist from the rush of descending water interacts with the city’s many upward facing spotlights. Light pillars do appear frequently over Niagara Falls, especially during the winter.

As always, the great website Atmospheric Optics is a wonderful place to go and learn more about sun pillars.

Bottom view of bright orange corrugated clouds with vertical column of light.
December 7, 2018, sunrise from Independence, Oregon, via Kathryn M. Bennett. Notice the sun pillar! Kathryn said she literally ran outside to get images before having to leave for work. “As I was photographing, I noticed the sun pillar.”
Pillar of light coming up from dark clouds against a yellow sunset.
Joe C. Tabb and Dawn Tabb caught this amazing sun pillar at sunset on May 10, 2016. A storm had recently passed.

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