Explaining those strange lights in the sky

November 20, 2008 3:56:34 PM PST
What's this? That's what Action News viewers wanted to know on Wednesday night, after snapping and emailing us many photos of these strange lights in the night sky. The lights, motionless streaks extending from the low cloud deck, appear to be dropping out of the clouds like streaks of frozen lightning. What was the explanation? Aircraft? Spacecraft? Aliens?

The fact that your local morning meteorologist is writing this article should give you a clue. The streaks were most likely thin columns of snowflakes falling out of the clouds that were being illuminated by the lights from shopping centers and other urban light sources. In most cases, the snow was evaporating before it hit the ground, which is why the streaks appeared to end in a strange, suspended pattern.

Franklin Institute astronomer Derrick Pitts tells Action News that there's also an outside possibility that the lights were actually the Aurora Borealis, or "northern lights", which are usually seen much closer to the earth's poles than in our latitude. The Aurora is the result of electromagnetic energy from the sun striking the earth's atmosphere. But even Pitts was initially leaning toward the snow reflection theory, as of midday Thursday. Some additional observations of sun activity could confirm this later on.

Back to the snow theory: precipitation often takes on this sort of column pattern as it falls from clouds. You actually see this often in the Midwest where the ground is flat and it's easier to notice the shapes and form of storms as they pass by. Sometimes, you can spot the pattern here too, especially when you're on high, open ground. On Tuesday afternoon, my son and I were heading west on Route 1 near the Granite Run Mall in Delaware County when I pointed out this very same phenomena to him. Before us was a billowing cloud with the sun behind it and beneath the cloud were thin gray streaks which I described as the snow from a snow shower falling toward the earth. In this case, most of the flakes were also evaporating before they hit the ground, causing the streaks to thin out just above the tree line.

By the way, I don't think you would see these streaks of lights in the warm weather season with a passing rain storm. The reason they were so bright on Wednesday night is that it was snow that was producing the effect. The ice crystals that make up snowflakes reflect light easily and in some cases, brilliantly. They do this much better than the water drops and droplets contained in a rain shower.

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