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Rare Sun Pillar Wows Oregon, Washington Coast Along with Supermoon

Published 03/11/2020 at 12:08 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Rare Sun Pillar Wows Oregon, Washington Coast Along with Supermoon

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(Oregon Coast) – Atmospherically, the Oregon coast and the Washington coast were together an eventful region on Monday night. Not only were these areas the recipients of a massive, ultra bright supermoon, but sunset brought a truly rare sight: a sun pillar. (Photo courtesy Tiffany Boothe / Seaside Aquarium).

All up and down the coastlines, reports came in from as far south as Bandon up to southern Washington. Social media was abuzz, with even inland areas like Salem and Eugene spotting the enormous, colorful columns of light.

Even better, this sight is considered fairly rare. It’s certainly not common. Even so, Oregon Coast Beach Connection found a photo of this in its archives, taken in Seaside in 2006 (below).

What is the sun pillar? It’s hard to find someone locally who knew much about it, but Rebecca Muessle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Portland helped explain.

“Basically, it’s light being reflected off ice crystals that are in the atmosphere, generally out of a higher level cloud like a cirrus stratus cloud,” she said. “When the sun is at a certain angle, light from the sun reflects off those ice crystals and creates that vertical column.”

It has cousins a little more common in the inland portions of the Pacific Northwest and along the Oregon coast and Washington coast, such as the moon halo or sun halo. It’s even related to the sun dog, where you see two points of lights (and perhaps small vertical columns) on either side of the sun. Oregon Coast Beach Connection has photographed numerous moon halos.

“It’s very similar in style and in the mechanisms you’d see around a sun halo, where you see a perfect ring around the sun,” Muessle said. “It’s really based on the sun’s angle and those ice crystals.”

There’s a small difference, however. According to the NWS main office in Washington D.C, halos and sun dogs are the product of refraction rather than reflection. Those tiny ice crystals can have light bounce off them, creating the sun pillar. Or they refract the light, which is where light passes through the ice crystal and gets bent with some colors getting shut out. This is also the mechanism for the Green Flash at sunset and its unusual cousin, the Novaya Zemlya effect.

In many ways it’s no surprise there were ice crystals out there doing this on Monday. The forecast held for rather icy conditions to descend that night, and halos are often a telltale sign of colder weather to come.

An interesting factoid about these ice crystals is that they have a hexagonal shape, with many sides that are flat. This helps create some of effects made by refraction or reflection. Another aspect that’s surprising is that in the case of a sun pillar, the crystals are falling and wobbling from side to side.

“So you have to have super cold air aloft, which is keeping conditions generally really, really cold, where ice is forming versus water droplets,” Muessle said. “As with anything in our atmosphere, everything is either rising or falling. And in this case it’s the ice crystals that are falling, and before they reach the ground they’re evaporating.”

Sun pillars aren’t the only forms of light pillars. Some are moon pillars, and not all forms ascend. Some sun and moon pillars point downwards. In even rarer cases – which have been the cause of some superstitions in days of old – sun pillars create a giant cross. Not all light pillars are natural, either. Some forms come from street lights: these have really become the center of superstitions as they’ve caused UFO reports.

Monday night was, of course, best known for its supermoon: an extra bright and somewhat larger full moon, made so by the fact it’s closer to Earth than usual. This shot from Oregon Coast Beach Connection’s sister publication Oregon Travel Daily is of the supermoon with a bunch of parking lot lights in Beaverton.

Tuesday night hinted at being almost as interesting. Also in Beaverton: hints of a sun dog to the west at rush hour. More of the light pillars below. Oregon Coast Hotels in this area - Where to eat - Maps - Virtual Tours

 




Below: the light pillar in Rockaway Beach, courtesy Marilyn K. Elkins



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