Boston Pillar

The Boston Pillar: A Mesmerizing Atmospheric Phenomenon

Atmospheric optics never fails to amaze us with its stunning displays of natural beauty. One such captivating phenomenon is the Boston Pillar, which graced the skies over the Old Harbour in Boston, Massachusetts on December 15, 2008. Imaged by Richard Hall, this enchanting spectacle showcases a large wobbly plate-shaped ice crystals in the clouds, creating a mesmerizing pillar that glinted sunlight towards the eye and camera.

While the Boston Pillar may appear as an upward shining beam, it is actually composed of countless glints of light produced by millions of hexagonal-faced ice crystals. These crystals, suspended in the atmosphere, act as tiny mirrors, reflecting and refracting sunlight to create this awe-inspiring optical illusion.

The formation of the Boston Pillar relies on the presence of specific weather conditions. Large plate-shaped ice crystals, also known as hexagonal columns, are crucial for its manifestation. These crystals are typically found in high-level cirrus clouds, which are composed of ice particles rather than water droplets. As sunlight passes through these clouds, it interacts with the ice crystals and gives rise to the stunning pillar effect.

To fully appreciate the intricacies of the Boston Pillar, it is essential to understand the science behind its formation. As sunlight enters the hexagonal ice crystals, it undergoes a process called refraction. This causes the light to bend as it passes through the crystal's surfaces, resulting in a separation of colors known as dispersion. Additionally, the hexagonal shape of the crystals allows them to act as tiny prisms, further enhancing the dispersion of light.

The angle at which the light is bent within the ice crystals determines the direction in which it is ultimately emitted. In the case of the Boston Pillar, the glints of light are scattered upwards towards the observer's eye or camera lens, creating the illusion of a vertical beam. This phenomenon is intensified when the crystals are aligned horizontally, as it maximizes the reflection and refraction of sunlight.

The Boston Pillar serves as a reminder of the remarkable beauty that can be found in nature's intricate designs. By capturing the imagination of onlookers, it encourages us to delve deeper into the world of atmospheric optics and appreciate the hidden wonders that surround us.

In conclusion, the Boston Pillar is a captivating atmospheric phenomenon that showcases the interplay between sunlight and hexagonal ice crystals in high-level cirrus clouds. Its mesmerizing effect is created by the glints of light reflected and refracted by millions of these crystals. By understanding the scientific principles behind its formation, we can truly appreciate the awe-inspiring beauty of this natural spectacle. So, keep your eyes to the sky and marvel at the wonders that atmospheric optics has to offer!

Sunset pillar over the Old Harbour, Boston, MA December 15, '08. Imaged by Richard Hall ©Richard Hall, shown with permission.

Large wobbly plate shaped ice crystals in the clouds created the pillar by glinting sunlight from their hexagonal faces towards the eye and camera. Although pillars appear to be upward shining beams, they are not - the 'beam' is the glints of millions of crystals.

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Reference Atmospheric Optics

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  • "Boston Pillar". Atmospheric Optics. Accessed on March 1, 2024.

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