The science behind sun, ice pillars spotted in West Michigan

ice pillars
Kevin Jung Photography: Flickr- Facebook-

(WOOD) — Bitterly cold nights in West Michigan have been perfect for the formation of “ice pillars.”

Sometimes, the same cold air conditions can lead to spectacular sunrises with “sun pillars” shooting up over the horizon.


Light pillars seem to stretch into the sky from anything on the ground that is producing light. The brighter the light, the more intense the ice pillar. The color of the pillar will match the color of the light on the ground.

Ice pillars like these can only form when a special type of ice crystal settles low to the ground. These crystals, which have six sides, are usually only found in really high altitude clouds. However, when temperatures are cold enough, these ice crystals can drop down to the surface. When they are tilted correctly, they are the reason we see artificial light pillars shooting into the sky.

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When you see a light pillar, the ice crystals creating it are roughly halfway between you and the light source. Although it is hard to tell with the naked eye, the pillar doesn’t form exactly over the light on the ground. Instead, the pillar will actually be slightly closer to the viewer.



The taller the pillar, the thicker the column of ice crystals. Often times on nights when light pillars form, sun pillars are spotted the morning after, when the sun is rising. Sun pillars need those same six-sided crystals tilted on their sides to shoot a blazing shaft of light into the sky.

A Jan. 6, 2017 photo shows a sun pillar over Wayland. (Lee Lamberts)