Yet Another Scientist Jumping The Gun: Auroras, Ice Pillars, And Post-Standard/ Activity

An otherwise uneventful evening took a turn around 10:20 pm last night with a phone call from Douglass Dowty, crime and safety reporter for the Post-Standard in our fair city, Syracuse, NY. According to his message, people had been calling 911 about lights in the sky (always the kind of message that gets my undivided attention) and he wanted to check on whether or not were witnessing the Aurora Borealis. I jumped immediately outside in socks to take a look and caught what I thought was the aurora in full splendor. Having not done quite enough homework, I proceeded, with my Syracuse Astronomical Society hat on, to be quoted as saying the following:

"I've never seen it like this: pillars of orangish to greenish to yellow-blue light," said Damian Allis, president of the Syracuse Astronomical Society.

The aurora borealis, or northern lights, caused the unusual display, Allis said.

…and then take many, many photos (click on any for a larger view).

Light pillars over St. Joseph's Hospital.
Light pillars over Northern Syracuse (contrast-enhanced).

A zoom-out of St. Joseph's (two sets of pillars).
"Automobile Row," or West Genesee Street.

…and I then began to take the harder look around. I realized, a bit later, that this wasn't the aurora, but ice/light pillars. The two are similar in appearance but, with enough looking around for details, are differentiable. The light pillars are, of course, the dead giveaway (which jumped right out over St. Joseph's). There's quite a bit on ice/light pillars online, but I thought I'd take my own crack at an explanation (and figure).

Light Pillars

So, the pillars are, in fact, a rather large-scale result of reflection in the atmosphere, with the city lights providing plenty of source. I qualified my report to Douglass in the comment section of the article on the website.

As the potential source of at least some of the heated discussion (although with the MONY tower reading "09" degrees last night, heated might not be the best word), I wanted to correct/report/qualify a bit of the news story.

Was what we saw aurora or light pillars? When I first walked out on my roof, I suspected the phenomenon was the aurora. I suspected as such because (1) I didn't see the "pillaring" of light (which was VERY prominent over St. Joseph's Hospital), (2) indicated that the aurora oval was over New York (this is the "band" of light we see on the ground due to all of the physics in the magnetosphere), and (3) the lights were prominent to the North and virtually invisible to the South (the lights basically ended at Jupiter to our East and Saturn to our West (the two brightest "stars" in the sky last night)), which is what you'd expect from an aurora show.

Anyone that looked in the direction of St. Joe's saw very prominent pillars, which was the clincher (and, had I noticed those first before Douglass called (and he called because he'd gotten 911 reports. In case anyone was concerned, the aliens were not invading. If anything, light pillars look like transporter lights from Star Trek. If King Kong and the Jolly Green Giant are ever members of the Enterprise "Away Team," their materializing on the surface might look remarkably like the giant pillars we saw last night)). While it's possible that some component of last night was aurora-related, my money's on our bearing witness to light pillars. Either way, I agree with lilschwib's last comment, thank CornellLaxer for an eloquent and informative post, hope that dragbaby will forgive a scientist jumping the gun a little (my fuse is pretty short at 7:54 in the morning, too), and would like to throw my support to the "has nothing to do with global warming" contingent. Light pillars involve light, reflection, and ice crystals. They've very likely scared humans since the control of fire allowed us to venture out at night and I'm sure aliens on distant planets have had the same aurora/light pillar arguments on their comment boards (although they're called "Pepsi" and "Coke," respective, in the Vega system). In case anyone's interested, we'll be posting about it on the Syracuse Astronomical Society website ( in early March.

Damian Allis

Anyway, a wonderful break from the usual Thursday night.

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