Some of us complain about winter incessantly—the cold temperatures, the tricky driving conditions, and all the time we’re stuck inside. Yeah, summer gets all the glory. And it’s true that winter can be dangerous. But it can also be hauntingly beautiful.
Various kinds of snow and ice carpet the landscape during this time of year. Yet, some kinds of snow are a lot stranger than others. From mysterious balls of ice washing up on a beach in Siberia to icicles that form miles beneath the ocean, these phenomena are far from ordinary.
10. Light Pillars
Pastel-colored and floating eerily off the ground, these columns of light have often been mistaken for UFOs. Those who catch sight of them on a freezing winter night are often awed by their beauty, which seems like the work of aliens or some otherworldly power. Yet, the science behind the existence of light pillars is relatively mundane.
“Like all halos, they are purely the collected light beams from all the millions of [ice] crystals, which just happen to be reflecting light toward your eyes or camera,” explains Les Cowley, a retired physicist and atmospheric optics expert.
During very cold, windless nights, flat ice crystals from high altitudes can form closer to the ground and reflect the streetlights from cities and the ground lights from cars, resulting in the haunting, alien-like appearance of light pillars. They often take on the same color as the lights they reflect, which explains their many-colored hue.
Interestingly enough, similar phenomena can occur when sunlight or moonlight reflects off the ice crystals, resulting in the formation of sun and moon pillars.
These strange formations of snow resemble lethal patches of spikes. In fact, some of them can reach much higher than a person’s shoulder—up to 6 meters (20 ft)! Without any other traces of snow around penitentes, it can be startling to see these clawlike blades rising from the ground like hooded figures.
Penitentes are formed from hardened snow or ice at altitudes above 4,000 meters (13,000 ft). They can be found in shallow valleys where the snow is deepest and the Sun’s rays are not too strong.
Due to the process of sublimation (when the snow directly evaporates without becoming liquid), the snow becomes dented randomly as some areas sublimate faster than others, leaving deeper and deeper depressions. Over time, towering fields of spikes are formed. Don’t be fooled by their delicate appearance. While they may be pretty, they are a tricky obstacle for mountain climbers.