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Light Pillars In Sabah: Explained

You don't have to go all the way to Iceland to see the Northern Lights!


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Light Pillars In Sabah: Explained
Image: Andrew JK Tan
Living in a tropical country with the hottest climate, it is rare to see colourful lights while gazing into the night sky here in Malaysia (unless you’re actually looking at reflections from some fun fair happening in the city).
 
The closest we can probably get to witnessing such natural phenomenon is either travelling to Scandinavian countries or Iceland to catch the Northern Lights - or for those like us who are dirt broke, just scrolling through Instagram.
 

Until, that is, we heard something of this magnitude happened a little closer to home on Wednesday.
 
A group of photographers spotted unusual light beams dancing in the sky in the middle of the sea near Pulau Kelambu, Sabah.
 
First spotted at 9pm, one of the photographers Andrew JK Tan told The Star that the lights appeared in orange, red, green, yellow and white, and apparently danced for hours before it started to dim.

The photos have since made it's way online, as Netizens went crazy over the sighting.
 

So what exactly are these colourful vertical lights?

They, ladies and gentlemen, are known as light pillars.
 

Light pillars are an optical phenomenon where columns of light are seen emanating from below or above a light source, like reflecting light off flat ice crystals floating in the air close to the Earth’s surface.
 

Since it involves bouncing light off of ice, this occurrence is normally seen in cold, arctic regions – something Malaysian definitely isn’t.

How light pillars basically work.

Then how did this phenomenon happen in Malaysia?

Light pillars can also come from the Sun, called Solar or Sun pillars; or even by the Moon light, called Lunar or Moon pillars.
 
When the source of light is the Sun, light pillars can be seen when the Sun is near the horizon. So considering that the phenomenon was spotted at around 9pm, they were most likely Lunar pillars.

However, as a light pillar is not physically located above or below a light source, its appearance of a vertical column is actually just an optical illusion.

So, in a way, light pillars are very different from the Northern Lights you see in Norway, as they are actually a result of collisions between two particles: gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere and charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. 
 

Why do they appear in technicolour?

Light pillars can also occur in the presence of artificial lights. When the ice crystals floating in the atmosphere reflect the light source, the light pillars tend to follow the source’s colour.
 

And guess what? Apparently this wasn’t the first time this happened in Malaysia!
 
The dancing lights last occurred in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah in 2015 and before that in the east coast of Sabah in 2006.

Sounds like the skies in Sabah are out of this world. If any of you spot more of the lights in the next few days, do share with us!

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