Watoga Trail Report

Light Pillars in Siberia are a dazzling phenomenon of light and ice crystals. Photo courtesy of Wiki
The science of light pillars. Courtesy of Facebook

Ken Springer

A Singular Experience
Miracle or Wonder of Nature?

It was a bright, but sharply cold, February morning when a houseguest and I saw an extraordinary sight like we had never witnessed before or even knew existed. Although we marveled at the phenomenon we had observed together, we each carried away a totally different understanding of the nature of the experience.

My friend, we’ll call him Eric, had purchased a new truck in North Carolina and stayed overnight at my home on his way back to Ohio. The next morning around 9 a.m., we were drinking coffee and catching up. He was in the open loft where the guest bed is located, and I was down below in the great room.

The southern side of my chalet-style house is all glass. Eric was looking out through the glass at the tall pines that dominate the hillside just below my deck. My back was to the windows when all of a sudden Eric let out a gasp and said, “What the he** is that?” pointing down into the trees.

I turned around to see a breathtaking sight; a column of light extended from the ground to a height of about 10 meters. Within the clearly defined column were millions of what looked like sparkling diamonds swirling up from the ground, all staying within the border of the light as though encased in a meter-wide Plexiglas tube.

Within a couple of minutes, this splendorous display completely dissolved without a trace. I have seen aurora borealis, a volcano, the South Pacific Green-Flash, St. Elmo’s Fire, an honest politician, and many other rare and natural phenomena, but nothing like this.

Eric left for Ohio shortly after breakfast, convinced that he had witnessed a miracle on par with the Old Testament’s burning bush. Although I would have been glad to share his joy, I first had to explore a natural explanation for such a baffling occurrence. 

I reached out to some well-traveled friends to see if they had seen or heard of this phenomenon of dazzling light but came up empty-handed. One unabashedly skeptical friend replied with this comment, “Well, you know, these kinds of visions can happen when you eat wild mushrooms without properly identifying them.”

I didn’t know what to call the spectacle, so a Google search did not pay off until I typed in enough keywords. Then an esoteric article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) popped up.

Among the many atmospheric phenomena imaged in the abstract, there was one that matched what Eric and I saw. Light Pillars occur mainly in the northern latitudes, where temperatures are frigid. They are frequently seen in places like Scandinavia and Siberia but relatively rare in southern latitudes.

For a light pillar to form, several things must happen simultaneously. The first requirement is a source of a focused beam of light such as a lamppost, streetlight or a sunbeam.  In the display that we saw, the light source was a bright sunbeam slicing down through the early morning gloom of the dense pines and extending to the ground.

At the same time, the temperature must be cold – it was nine degrees Fahrenheit. Also required are tiny airborne ice crystals, so small they are invisible to the naked eye until the light source is reflected from their many facets.

The upward cyclonic effect of the crystal glitter was caused by the sunbeam warming the ground and causing the air to rise in swirls within the beam. It was breathtaking, to say the least.

I have not seen my friend since that morning, and if he ever brings up our shared experience in the future, I will feel obligated to tell him the results of my investigation. But otherwise, I see no need to burst his bubble.

All I did was spend a little time reading about this light and ice phenomenon on a few credible internet sites. To arrive at the truth of what two people saw on a cold February morning just took a little digging in the right places.  

Assuming that we had witnessed a miracle would have been comforting for sure. But just an assumption would not be sufficient for most of us. We want the truth, and we don’t want to be fooled, be it a natural oddity or a prognosis from our doctor.

To have a steady diet of truth and facts we must exercise critical thinking and effort. Particularly so in this age of social media and wildly divergent versions of reality.

What passes as accurate and true on the internet often creates a segment of the public believing that the Moon landing was fake and Knott’s Landing is real. Navigating through this minefield of misinformation requires that we all maintain at least a modicum of incredulity.

It goes without saying that this growing demographic does not include the astute readers of The Pocahontas Times.

Good science requires observation, a testable hypothesis, a prediction based upon the hypothesis, and replication of the results. A good scientist will never ignore the facts, wherever they may lead her. 

This last point will be further examined in next week’s Watoga Trail Report, when we will look at an astronomical mystery that took place in the fall of 2017. On October 19 of that year, the University of Hawaii’s Pan- STARRS1 telescope high atop Mount Haleakala discovered an interstellar object passing through our solar system at a startlingly high rate of speed.

Although scientists were searching for asteroids and comets, this interloper bore none of the usual signatures of either. Additionally, the “object” appeared to accelerate at one point and has a geometry never before seen in an asteroid or comet.

Theories abound as to what our visitor may be, but to date, the scientific jury is still out. Tune in next week when we explore how science deals with mysterious anomalies.

Ken Springer

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