A Sun Pillar in Virginia Beach?
On Tuesday, April 21, 2020, the most remarkable astronomical phenomenon was observed from the shores of Virginia Beach VA. Nearly 60-minutes following sunrise, at approximately 7:33 a.m. EST., multiple flares of cone-shaped light, were observed emitting from the top and bottom of the sun forming 22-degree arcs on either side. After careful observation and diligent inquiry, the phenomenon was determined to be a “sun pillar”. While there are no sightings on the historical record for Virginia Beach, VA, their significance is worth an interest.
Sun pillars are one of the rarest phenomena in the sky and have been reported throughout history by farmers and amateur astronomers all over the world, as an observed astronomical event. As early as the 1800’s, scientific magazine’s such as Nature, have reported on observations of light and sun pillars as astronomical phenomena. In their March 13, 1902, Magazine, a man from Sutton Mandeville Rectory, Salisbury submitted his observation of Light and Sun Pillars.
Subscriber Guy J. Bridges, noted that the sight of the Pillars were so remarkable, that he implored his fellow readers;
“It would be interesting if the readers of Nature could detect any definite movement of the arm of light, for much yet remains to be discovered about this phenomenon, and any observer can make this a point of study”.
Over a century later, aside from wonder, curiosity, and occasional theory, little is known about sun pillars. What is most fascinating about the luminous phenomena, is its ability to silently fade into the background of historical obscurity and avoid investigation for hundreds of years.
Throughout the 1800’s, several observers reported in various magazines and newspapers, accounts of sun and light pillars. A subscriber to Nature in 1871, submitted photographs with a supporting article (also submitted to Meteorological Magazine), which documented a distinct flare of light as described by the author as a ‘solar-cross flare’ seen April 4, 1871:
“I believe that it is merely a portion of a halo passing vertically through the 'sun; in the recent case, that portion of the halo which was above the sun was alone seen, sometimes the portion below it is seen alone, and occasionally both are visible, together with a parhelic circle (or parts of one), and then of course we have the rare.” -G J. Symons of 62, Camden Square, N. W.
Symons' witnessed phenomenon, had similar consistencies to earlier “sun pillar” reports dating as early as 1586, in Cassell Germany by Roth; and in the Mem. de l'Acad. Des Sciences for 1693 and 1722, for descriptions by Cassini and Maleziec. How could such a remarkable spectacle have such little interest to the scientific community?
Historical Background of the Sun Pillar
Sun-pillars have been regarded in philosophical writings and folklore with the same shroud of mystery as the school of scientific research. In earlier times, the pillar was regarded as a structure placed at the entrance to an ancient building of importance. Raymond Apple’s research in “The Pillars of the Temple”, evidenced pillars as architectural discoveries in the regions of Cyprus and Sidon, as represented in coinage of the era. Today- only a few structures once built as pillars exist. New York and London house two of the oldest pillars in the world. At 3,500-years old Cleopatra’s Needle, made in Egypt for the Pharaoh Thotmes III in 1460 BC, has remained a staple landmark of the region.
The term “sun pillar”, according to the The Amud: Pillar (Lectern), derived from the occurrence when the sun’s rays begin to illuminate the sky, leading to Dawn. The Dawn, referred to as alot hashachar means “the rise of morning”, also known as amud hashachar, “the morning pillar”. In biblical refence, “sun pillar” was applied in multiplicity to reference the worship of idols and “false gods”. The term was used in stories such as Leviticus 26:30; “And I will lay waste your high places, and cut down your sun-pillars…”. In modern-times, however; the term sun pillars most often references an event consequential to the often unpredictable atmospheric conditions.
The University of Illinois, Department of Atmospheric Science, describe a “sun pillar” as viewable during sunrise and sunset and associated with thin, high-level clouds. The Department reports on their website that a perpendicular channel of light spreads upward or downward from the sun, and occurs as a result of the reflection of sunlight off the surface of falling ice crystals. Additional inquiry into the subject, brought me to a website created by and for amateur astronomers founded by Deborah Bird. Bird, the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of EarthSky.org, reported on similar findings in concurrence with the University.
While the phenomenon I witnessed the morning of April 21, 2020, continues to baffle me, as an observer of nature who has witnessed hundreds of sunrises for nearly half-a-century, my observation of the Pillar over Virginia Beach, was an unforgettable once in a life-time event.