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CINDY DAY: Sunrise by candlelight?

Betty Meredith captured this image of a sun pillar in Mahone Bay, N.S.
Betty Meredith captured this image of a sun pillar in Mahone Bay, N.S. - Submitted

Every morning, Grandma made a point of checking the clouds. She believed that clouds could tell us a lot about the incoming weather. Every now and again, she spotted something quite magical.

Cindy Day
Cindy Day

Last month, Helen Haley - who lives in Windsor, N.S. - looked up and saw something quite beautiful. She wasn’t sure what it was so she wrote me a lovely letter. In it, Helen explained how one morning last winter she and her husband, Leslie, saw what she described as a strange shaft of sunlight at sunrise. They didn’t have a camera handy so they drew a few very intricate images to illustrate what they saw. From the drawing, I could see that the sun appeared to have been just below the horizon with a very bright, glowing shaft of light extending upward.

The drawing and excellent descriptions lead me to believe Helen and Leslie witnessed a solar or sun pillar: an optical phenomenon that looks like the flame on a candle.

A sun pillar is a vertical shaft of light that reaches straight up from the rising or setting sun. Sun pillars form when sunlight reflects off the surfaces of falling ice crystals. Most times, those ice crystals are associated with thin, high-level cirrostratus clouds. Since pillars are caused by the interaction of light with ice crystals, they belong to the family of halos.

The crystals responsible for light pillars usually consist of flat, hexagonal plates, which tend to fall more or less horizontally through the air. Their surfaces act as giant mirrors, reflecting light up and sometimes down; the bigger the crystals, the more pronounced this effect. These shafts of light are at their best within a few minutes of sunrise or sunset. Initially they have about the same colour and width as the sun, but sun pillars will gradually change from orange-white to red-orange. They are much more common in the winter when arctic air sinks down over the region and the necessary ice crystals are plentiful.

Now from the believe it or not file: the pillars are not physically over the light source - in this case the sun. Like all halos they are purely the collected light beams from all the millions of crystals that just happen to be reflecting light towards your eyes.

A little science to help Mother Nature with the magic!

This day in weather history

Had it with the rain? Me, too, but it could be worse.

On May 3, 1988, the high temperature in Halifax was only 3 C. The the wind was from the east, gusting to 40 km/h and it snowed with snowfall measurements ranging from two to five centimetres.

In 1985, eight cm of snow fell in Charlottetown May 3 and that was not the last of it! The final snow came May 14. The snowfall total for the month of May 1985 was a whopping 21 cm in the P.E.I. capital.

More recently, back in 2001 you were no doubt still wearing your winter boots in St. John’s May 3. A snowy winter was followed by a cold spring and there was still 31 cm of snow on the ground.

Cindy Day is the chief meteorologist for SaltWire Network.

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