John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Looking like laser lights from a Metallica concert, this is not your typical aurora borealis.
Envy the people of Finland: They not only get to zone out each year to the tripadelic northern lights, they also have these entrancing "light pillars" shining over the land like fire fountains at a Lordi heavy-metal jam.
Photographer Mika Wist, who lives in the southern city of Hämeenlinna, captured the above view of the light columns from his balcony on Tuesday evening. "These pillars occurred around 8-9 pm and lasted about an hour," he emails. "Outside was -19 °C / -2,2 °F. I haven't seen those for a very long time in the south part of Finland."
The celestial beams varied in color and were bright enough to stick out against the city's ambient glow (more about that in a minute). After taking them in for a bit from his house, Wist ventured outside to get this shot of them leaping over a frozen lake:
Although these pillars might seem similar to the aurora borealis, they are quite a different animal. They actually depend on the urban environment's unshielded lights to materialize, as NASA's Tony Phillips explains at Spaceweather:
Lately, in communities around the Arctic Circle, people have been seeing colorful lights in the sky. Although they look like auroras, they are not....
They're light pillars, caused by ice crystals in the air which intercept urban lights and spread them into colorful columns. No solar activity is required for the phenomenon. The only ingredients are ice and light pollution.
If you want a more technical explanation of how these gleaming phantasms form, here's a brief explainer. Look for them the next time you're traveling in Finland, or even in your own frigid city at night – when ice crystals are airborne, mini-light pillars can form in the glow of a streetlight.
The Finnish people have had several recent encounters with the pillars. Here are a couple more photos from earlier on January 19 (and one from January 14):
Top photos courtesy of Mika Wist