Paper Production, Ice Crystals, and Light Pillars

Here in the northern Maine community of Madawaska we are accustomed to cold weather. This year (2019) at the W1AYX weather station we recorded our first sub-zero temperatures of the season on November 18 at -1 F and again on December 2 with a low of -3 F.

In the early morning hours of December 2nd, I was greeted with an interesting sight that occurs here several times a year during the cold dark months. It is a phenomenon known in meteorological terms as “light pillars.”

Conditions have to be just right to produce these beautiful streams of light that seem to reach upward into the sky. This takes place when it is dark, the air is very cold, the local pulp and paper mills are expelling hefty amounts of steam, the air is calm, and artificial light sources are turned on.

The science behind “light pillars” is fairly simple. The large amount of water vapor being expelled into the air from the local paper mills cools rapidly and changes to ice crystals that begin to fall back toward the earth. These tiny, usually flat hexagonal, ice crystals act as mirrors reflecting light back toward their source thus producing an optical illusion of sorts that makes it appear as if pillars of light are reaching up into the heavens.

Below are some photos from the morning of December 2, 2019 (Outside Temp. -3 F) showing our Madawaska light pillars. These pictures were taken by a friend, Chris Michaud, who lives here in Madawaska. Check out his Facebook page for more spectacular photos of northern Maine.

Light Pillars in Madawaska, Maine on December 2, 2019. Photo credit : Chris Michaud
Light Pillars in Madawaska, Maine on December 2, 2019. Photo credit : Chris Michaud
Light Pillars in Madawaska, Maine on December 2, 2019. Photo credit : Chris Michaud
Steam from the Twin Rivers Paper Mill in Madawaska, Maine – Photo Credit: Chris Michaud
Steam from the Twin Rivers Pulp Mill in Edmundston, NB – Photo Credit: Chris Michaud

Keep looking up!

Jack, W1AYX – Psalm 19:1-3

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