It was the middle of winter in Ontario, Canada. Outside, the conditions were freezing. Indeed, there was snow and ice everywhere, and Timothy Joseph Elzinga was asleep in his bed. At about half past one in the morning, however, something stirred him from his slumber.
The sound was Elzinga’s two-year-old son, who was crying. And so Timothy pulled himself out of the comfort of his bed and went to look after his child. But while he was there, something out of the window caught his eye. Something that likely made him stop in his tracks.
“It looked like someone from Star Trek was trying to beam people up,” Elzinga told CBC. And, in fact, he wasn’t too far from the truth. Why? Because the sky was indeed filled with incredible pillars of light. They stretched across the horizon, seemingly darting up into the ether.
And so Elzinga did what seemed like the only sensible thing to do. Yes, like any good photographer, he pulled on some pants, grabbed his camera and went outside to take snapshots of the incredible sight. The pictures he took, furthermore, reveal one of the most incredible natural phenomena.
However, although the photos themselves arguably don’t quite do justice to the wonderful interplay of lights that were in the sky, Elzinga managed to use words to describe them perfectly. “It was very bright in person, like nothing I’ve ever seen. It almost seemed supernatural,” he told CBC.
Outside, meanwhile, the temperature had dropped to -0.4 °F. Moreover, this icy temperature had given rise to a beautiful and incredibly rare occurrence. And if Elzinga’s young child hadn’t started crying then there’s a good chance that he’d never have been able to capture these mesmerizing images.
But, while they may look similar, the lights in the sky weren’t the famous northern lights. Instead, they were something altogether stranger. And what’s more, they were even rarer. Yes, a perfect combination of the cold and the city lights twinkling below had come together to create something incredibly beautiful.
Even Elzinga was fooled at first. Indeed, after he first saw the lights in the sky, he got in his wife’s car and drove to the top of a nearby hill. He was, apparently, aiming to get a view of the phenomena without the light pollution of the city obscuring his vision.
But the further out of the city he got, the less clear the lights became. In fact, by the time he got to the top of the hill he could barely see them at all. It was then, consequently, that he realized he wasn’t looking at the aurora borealis. But if it wasn’t the northern lights, then what was he looking at?
Later, Elzinga turned his car round and came down the hill. But the lower down he got, the clearer the pillars of light became. So, Elzinga finally realized that the pillars weren’t in the sky. Instead, they were shooting up out of the ground.
Now it seems that the temperature was the key to the mystery here. Yes, because the air in Ontario that night was so bitterly cold, the moisture in it started to freeze into tiny crystals of ice. The temperature had dipped so low, in fact, that the air was full of freezing crystals.
In turn, the lights of the city below were catching the crystals in the air. And the glow of the city was subsequently reflected in the air, sending giant columns of light up to what looked like hundreds of feet into the sky.
These incredible formations have, however, the less than stellar name of light pillars. It really doesn’t do justice to the beauty that the cold and the lights can create. Interestingly, though, both natural and artificial light can help create these fantastic streaks of color in the sky.
In fact, the pillars occur thanks to the shape of the ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. When they form into hexagons, they can begin to refract lights coming from underneath them. The end result, then, is the incredible light show that Elzinga was privy to.
Intriguingly, it’s also possible for these columns of light to appear during the day. When this happens, however, they’re known as sun pillars. But, as you might imagine, they’re a lot harder to see when the sun’s out, so capturing a photo of a sun pillar is even rarer.
Now, the pillars that Elzinga saw were particularly impressive because they were very near to the Earth. Usually, light pillars form higher in the air. And, again, we have the cold to thank for this. Indeed, because it was so frigid that night, the ice crystals actually formed much closer to the ground.
What’s more, pillars like these don’t just stay one shade of color; in fact, the colors fluctuate. Elzinga reported to CBC that, as he was out taking his photographs, people were leaving their houses to observe the pillars shifting between hues of blue, green, red and yellow.
The shifting of these colors, along with the flickering nature of the lights, was likely down to the different light sources down on Earth. Traffic lights changed; neon lights danced; street lights flashed. And they all came together to create a stunning spectacle of columns in the freezing sky.
As Elzinga noted in a video uploaded to his YouTube channel, this was very much a case of being in the right place at the right time. Indeed, thanks to the position of his house as well as the position of the lights, he was perfectly placed to see the incredible pillars seemingly bursting up and into the sky.
So, that night a combination of factors came together to create some truly incredible photographs: from the bitter cold, to the bright lights of modern city living, to Elzinga’s position and even the early morning crying of a small child. Elzinga, then, managed to capture a phenomenon that few of us are ever going to be lucky enough to see in real life.