Light Pillars Over Berlin Last Night

2012-03-31 19:33:58.000 – Ryan Knapp,  Weather Observer/Meteorologist

Light Pillars over Berlin, NH last night.

Working nights up here, I’m not usually easily scared…Nope, that’s not right…Working nights up here, I am perpetually in a state of fear. I may put on a brave face on the outside, but inside, I’m more like the Cowardly Lion from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Some nights are better than others, but most, somewhere in the back of my mind, I am constantly being nagged by the ‘What ifs…?’ What if I slip and hurt myself? What if a chunk of ice knocks me unconscious? What if a hypothermic hiker attacks me? What if aliens abduct me? Ok, so that last one may not be biggest fear, but when you watch movies and read books about such topics up here and then head outside to work, your mind really starts to wonder. And sometimes the weather and the atmosphere can play into these fears.

Last night was a prime example of this fear. As I headed out for the 4 am weather observation, I saw an orb of light hovering above Berlin, NH. I didn’t think much of it, just passing it off as a bright star at first. But then I realized that it was completely overcast, and as I ran down my list of known bright stars, something just seemed off. So I continued doing my walk around outside, keeping my peripheral vision on this light orb that seemed to be elongating. And then others started to form. And that is when I started singing like Dory from ‘Finding Nemo’, only, instead of ‘Just keep swimming…,’ I was singing ‘Just keep slinging. Just keep slinging. Slinging. Slinging. What do we do? We sling, sling…’ I figured if I focused on the task of slinging (a device we use to measure ambient air temperature and dew point), my inner cowardness wouldn’t come through; easier said than done though.

But then the scientific and rational part of me started to take back control. So, what could they be? The Northern Lights? Possibly, but the lighting was wrong and the formation was wrong and looking at the forecast maps, we were only supposed to be at level 3 out of 10 last night. Spot lights from Berlin? Possibly, but their shape and movement (or lack thereof) was wrong, and why would someone be using spot lights towards the sky at 4 am? I’m pretty sure the city I call home in my off week doesn’t have its very own Bat Signal or anything like that. Cloud iridescence? Possibly, but they weren’t like the last time I saw that phenomena. Then I remembered a story posted by National Geographic a few years ago about light pillars.

Light pillars are similar to those found above (and occasionally below) the sun close to sunrise and sunset, except in this case, the light source creating these columns of light are being created by the light pollution of nearby cities and towns. In a nutshell, these pillars form when plate shaped ice crystals float in the air close to the ground and are oriented such that their facets are parallel with the ground to allow light to reflect back down to someone observing from a distance. Normally these crystals aren’t located directly over the light sources but around the light source, usually between the light source and the observers eye, and as a collective whole, are reflecting the light in the distance back to the observer. In the case of last night, we had moisture aloft and dry air at the surface, allowing for very fine virga to descend from the surrounding cloud bases. And for a span of about 15 minutes around 4 am, the light being emitted from Berlin allowed for a collective of pillars to quickly form to our north before fading into the ether once again as the band of moisture passed. While my picture isn’t as impressive as some of the ones I found on Google images for ‘light pillars’, for me, seeing them in person, they were one of those rare sights that I was glad to see, even if they scared the bejeezus out of me momentarily.


Ryan Knapp,  Weather Observer/Meteorologist

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