Have you ever seen a sun pillar?

Sun pillars are a dramatic optical illusion. Here’s how they form and the best time to spot them.

As a meteorologist, I had learned about sun pillars but I had never seen one until recently.

I was driving home from work after a snowstorm. It was around sunset and I was driving west. As the storm was moving out, I saw some beautiful pink and red clouds. As I admired the beautiful colors and soaked in how dramatic it was to go from snowing all day to finishing the day with an amazing sunset, I spotted something different.

It was a long shape extending vertically from the ground, fairly high into the atmosphere. It really stood out from all the curved shapes of the clouds.

It was a sun pillar – my very first! I pulled over and was able to get a few pictures of the event. 

A sun pillars is an optical illusion that appears as a beam of light extending vertically from the sun. It’s like seeing a pillar or beam of sunshine coming up from the ground, which is very dramatic. The light is the reflection of the sunlight off of ice crystals suspended in the air. Clouds in the upper parts of the atmosphere, such as cirrostratus clouds, are a good source of ice crystals.

Sometimes city lights can create light pillars that look similar to sun pillars.

So, if you want to find a sun pillar, here are a few tips.

  • Look for them at sunrise and sunset. They can happen even when the sun is just above or below the horizon.
  • The sky needs to have ice crystals, either from thin clouds or from bitterly cold air.
  • Look for a shaft or pillar of light rising up from the ground. Check near the horizon where the light bends the most.

Once you see one, spotting them in the future will be easier. Sun pillars are an amazing phenomenon and I’ll never forget seeing my first one.