At first glance, the mesmerizing light display that occurred on Oct. 16 over Whitefish Bay, Michigan, had all the hallmarks of a visual effect from a science-fiction film. Instead of "first contact," however, this beautiful shimmer is actually a fairly common optical phenomenon called a light pillar.

Light pillars form when sources of light from the ground, sun or even the moon interact with horizontal concentrations of ice crystals in the atmosphere. When viewed from a distance, these crystals align in such a way as to create the optical illusion of a dazzling pillar of light.

Photographer Vincent Brady, who specializes in capturing nocturnal scenes, said in a Facebook post that he was "pleasantly surprised" to come across the phenomenon.

"This is a shot north of Paradise, MI looking east over Whitefish Bay," he wrote. "The red lights are around the Canadian island Ile Parisienne. I'm not entirely sure of the artificial light source of the pillars."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.