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On a freezing cold night in Apatity — a city in Murmansk Oblast, Russia — Valentin Zhiganov was photographing two women in a hot tub with the northern lights dancing in the sky above. That’s when he noticed another striking natural phenomenon, the Daily Mail reported.

There were vertical light pillars, extending from the horizon into the auroras, visible above the northwestern Russian city.

(Photo by Valentin Zhiganov/Caters News)
(Photo by Valentin Zhiganov/Caters News)

Zhiganov said the sight is pretty rare — especially when the pillars reach such heights. “It was the first time I ever saw this type of aurora and we all enjoyed the view — despite the low temperatures,” he said.

At the time, the temperatures were about minus 30 degrees Celsius (about minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit). “I am really glad I was able to take some decent shots of this rare optical illusion.”

(Photo by Valentin Zhiganov/Caters News)
(Photo by Valentin Zhiganov/Caters News)

But Les Cowley, a former physicist and an expert in atmospheric optics, told TPG that this phenomenon is “quite common in near subzero temperatures.”

According to Cowley’s site, Atmospheric Optics, the light pillars are an optical illusion created by cold weather conditions when “plate-shaped ice crystals, normally only present in high clouds,” hover in the air near the ground. When nearby light sources, either natural or artificial, reflect off the suspended ice crystals, the light is reflected and seems to form a vertical column.

Because they can appear in dazzling colors, depending on the light source, the pillars often have an aurora-like (or alien-like) quality.

(Photo by Valentin Zhiganov/Caters News)
(Photo by Valentin Zhiganov/Caters News)

While there really is no telling when you’re going to come across vertical light pillars (though positioning yourself far north, in below freezing temps, is a good place to start), you’ll have a better shot predicting the appearance of the Northern Lights. Above the Arctic Circle, you can still view them through April in destinations around the world.

Feature photo by Valentin Zhiganov/Caters News.

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