Did you see light beams above Fort Collins Wednesday night? Here’s what they were

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Julie Clement thought her eyes were playing tricks on her when her boyfriend told her to look outside at beams of light dancing above Fort Collins on a frigid Wednesday night.

Stadium lights? An alien invasion, she jokingly wondered?

Then she went to her cellphone to discover the beams of light were light pillars or ice pillars.

“That is the coolest thing I have seen in some time,” said Clement, who saw the light pillars around 11 p.m. Wednesday from her home in the Terry Lake neighborhood in north Fort Collins. “I called them an urban aurora borealis.”

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These light pillars appeared above Fort Collins on Wednesday. Light pillars are an uncommon occurrence when weather conditions line up to allow ice crystals to refract light from such things as street lights.

David Barjenbruch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder, said light pillars are not very common in Colorado because the exact conditions needed do not often occur in the state.

For light pillars to form, there need to be ice crystals in a hexagonal shape that suspend in the air. To keep the crystals suspended, the air temperature must be freezing with just enough water vapor and no wind.

“We had the right conditions Wednesday night with frigid temperatures, just after a storm so there was enough moisture in the air and it was calm to allow for the ice crystals to form,” he said.

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It appears to the eye as a beam of light, which is an optical illusion. The light source, be it from street lights or other man-made sources near the ground, refracts off the crystals at just the right angle to produce the show.

Barjenbruch said Thursday night will be very cold, clear and calm but the right amount of moisture may not be in the air for a repeat. He said the best bets to see light pillars Thursday night will be in lower valley areas, possibly around Loveland and Greeley.

Aurora borealis, or northern lights, differ from light pillars in that they are created by clouds of electrically charged particles from solar storms that are captured in Earth’s magnetic field.

Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.