Night lights: Rare optical illusion shone in Winnipeg skies late Saturday and early Sunday

Manitobans snapped shots of light pillars across the southern part of the province Saturday.

Light pillars appeared across the southern part of the province

A rare natural phenomenon, light pillars, occurred across the southern part of the province Saturday. (Submitted by Daniel MacGibbon)

Night owls in Manitoba saw a rare natural phenomenon Saturday, when just the right conditions caused light pillars to appear across the southern part of the province. 

Jordan Carruthers, who runs Manitoba Storm Chasers, received a text from a friend late Saturday, alerting him about the light pillars. 

Light pillars appear above houses in Portage la Prairie Saturday. (Submitted by Jordan Carruthers)

"I do remember seeing them maybe once when I was a kid, but other than that I haven't really seen them in my adult life ... you need the perfect conditions to get them," he said. 

Carruthers was able to snap photos outside of his Portage la Prairie home, as the light pillars reflected from street lamps and car headlights. 

"I'm definitely excited to see it happen again someday. Hopefully it doesn't take as long to happen," he said.

Rare, but why? 

Scott Young, manager of the Planetarium and Science Gallery at the Manitoba Museum, saw the light pillars in Winnipeg around 1 a.m. Sunday.

"You could see them off in the distance, these just brilliant, perfectly straight pillars of light jumping up from the ground and reaching up into the sky. I had somebody ask whether they were Northern Lights, but they're actually an atmospheric phenomena from right down here on the earth," Young said. 

A rare natural phenomenon, light pillars, appeared across the southern part of the province Saturday. (Submitted by Jordan Carruthers)

He says light pillars occur as the result of crystals forming in the atmosphere. These crystals (which look somewhat like thin six-sided hexagons) are formed rarely, when the temperature and humidity are right. As the crystals fall through the atmosphere, they can line up horizontally. 

"It's almost like a parachute or a feather falling to the ground. You know, they sort of slowly drift down towards the ground, and if you get enough of those things forming all at the same time, in the same location they kind of act like little mirrors," Young said. 

That causes light to reflect off of the billions of ice crystals and then be reflected back. And due to the crystals' shape, the reflection is sharply defined — hence the optical illusion of pillars appearing to extend from lights. 

Keep your eyes to the skies 

While seeing light pillars is fairly rare, Young said, it's possible they might appear again in the not-so-distant future. 

"If we have some some stable conditions for a couple of days you might see them again," he said. 

Light pillars are usually reported about once a winter, but because they often happen during the wee hours of the morning, people often miss them, Young said. 

"People should just keep their eyes to the skies. There's always something neat going on."