No, those strange lights aren't UFOs – it's 'diamond dust'

Feb 23, 2015

Credit NASA

Monday morning’s low temperatures created a weather event in northern Michigan that you’re more likely to see in the Arctic Circle.

Pillars of light filled the sky early in the morning from a phenomenon called diamond dust. It’s a cloud formation made from ice crystals. 

Justin Arnott – a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Gaylord – says diamond dust can take light from street lamps or traffic lights and refract it into light pillars.

“They can extend very far from a light source,” Arnott says. “You can see the tops of them before you even know what’s creating the light. So that can kind of make it surreal.”

Arnott says the cause is tiny ice crystals from residual moisture.

“You’re really seeing the impact of light as it encounters really small ice crystals in the atmosphere,” Arnott says. “And it really tends to happen only when it’s really cold. I mean well below zero before we see that kind of phenomenon.”

Arnott says diamond dust is fairly rare in northern Michigan and more likely to be seen in the Arctic.

The first place he saw the weather event was in Alaska.   

“We saw those kind of phenomenon all the time,” Arnott says. “There’d be weeks when we’d be in the minus 20s and 30s and it was pretty typical up there this time of year.”

Diamond dust could return again later this week when temperatures are expected to drop.