When I originally booked my trip to Iceland, it didn’t occur to me that I’d be in the country on St. Patrick’s Day. I usually like to celebrate the occasion back in my hometown of Shrewsbury, with one of my best friends who originates from Ireland, and her parents, who mark the event by playing some fantastic Irish folk music down at one of our local pubs. However, due to aforementioned oversight, this year I found myself in Iceland on March the 17th.
We decided to make the trip so near to our upcoming South American adventure, because – according to scientists – the winter of 2013/2014 was allegedly the best time to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon that is the Aurora Borealis (more commonly known as the Northern Lights), in 50 years. That skiing and snowboarding trip we’d also hoped to make, would have to wait until next year. This was a chance in a million that I simply couldn’t pass up.
What causes the Aurora Borealis?
The Aurora Borealis takes its name from the latin word “aurora”, meaning ‘sunrise.’ (Aurora is also the Roman God of Dawn) and the Greek word “Boreas”, meaning ‘north wind.’ It’s a natural phenomenon that is caused by the interaction of the solar wind – a stream of charged particles escaping from the sun – with our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere. As the solar wind approaches, it distorts the earth’s magnetic field, and allows some charged particles from the sun to enter the earth’s atmosphere at the magnetic north or south poles. Charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere then collide with gas particles from the earth’s atmosphere, and cause them to glow.
The colours we see depend upon which gas particles are struck and at what altitude. The most common auroral colour (green) is produced when oxygen particles, located around 60 miles above the earth, are struck. Rare all-red auroras are produced by high altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purple aurora.
Where are the best places in the world to catch a sighting?
There is no ideal location to see the Northern Lights, however the vast majority of Auroras occur in a band known as the Auroral Zone. When solar activity is high, this band can expand, but generally displays are most frequent between 66 and 69 degrees north. As such, the Aurora Borealis is most frequently visible in Northern Scandinavia (Finland, Sweden, and Norway), Iceland, Southern Greenland, Northern Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada.
To see the Aurora Borealis in its full majesty, you need dark skies. Fortunately much of the Auroral Zone is very sparsely populated, so there is little light pollution around. Therefore, the further away you can get from civilisation – and thus from artificial light – the better.
The lights are historically at their most frequent and spectacular when the sun reaches the peak of its 11-year activity cycle, known as the Solar Maximum. Experts have predicted that this will happen during the winter of 2013/2014. There has also been wide speculation in the media that this Solar Maximum would be the strongest for 50 years, however I’m not entirely sure how this information has arisen, and how much faith can be placed in it. Nevertheless, it was enough for us to make the decision to book a flight to Iceland, in the hope of finding out.
The aurora is also said to be most active around the equinoxes – March and September.
So in order to be in with a chance of seeing nature’s spectacle, we needed 3 essential criteria to be fulfilled. We shall call these Northern Lights optimum viewing conditions:
- Clear skies
- Absence of artificial light pollution
- Solar Activity
We arrived in Reykjavik late hours of Friday night, and – eager to see what we came for – booked a Northern Lights tour for the following evening. However, when we awoke on our first morning in the city, we opened the curtains to a blanket of thick cloud, and a smattering of light rain. Most definitely not the kind of conditions conducive to Aurora Borealis sightings.
Upon checking the Aurora Forecast (read: cloud cover) online, we established that there was absolutely zero chance of a sighting anywhere in the country that evening. So we managed to re-schedule our tour to the following evening. The map illustrated a large amount of cloud cover still, but there were patches of the country that were forecast to be clear.
As the day started out, it was looking hopeful: there were patches of light snow around but there were breaks in the cloud. However, as the day grew on, Iceland’s unpredictable and quickly changeable weather conditions began to make themselves apparent. There’s a saying in Iceland that you’ll find printed on a lot of the T-shirts for sale in Reykjavik’s shops,
“If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait 5 minutes”
It’s so true. We mixed periods of sightseeing with periods sat in a selection of the city’s numerous coffee shops, depending on what the weather was doing. One minute there would be a blizzard rolling through, and miniature snowballs would be hitting my face and stinging my cheeks, and the next minute the sun would be shining down on the city, the cloud would have moved through, and the skies were a rich, summery blue.
The problem with our second day in Iceland, was that periods of the latter became shorter, and periods of the former became longer, which resulted in our second Northern Lights excursion being cancelled by the tour company.
Fortunately, our third day in Iceland was the polar opposite of the first: the periods of blue sky won out, and the sun burned through, resulting in a perfectly clear evening, a full moon, and a sky full of stars.
First optimum Northern Lights viewing condition. Check.
Moreover, the location we’d been driven to (approximately a one and a half hour drive from Reykjavík, towards the centre of Iceland) was a long way from civilisation.
Second optimum Northern Lights viewing condition. Check.
All we needed was the solar activity. Unfortunately that one was in the hands of Mother Nature.
So, there I found myself, on Paddy’s Day eve, standing in a field, in temperatures of minus 10, along with around 600 other people, staring up at the sky and hoping for the luck of the Irish.
The field we were stood in, belonged to a farmer who ran horse treks around the local area. He had hired out the use of his land, and also the use of the attached guesthouse restaurant and bar, which was – more than anything – a welcome respite from the below freezing temperatures outside.
There was barely any lighting outside, so we did have to rely on our eyes and feet to safely guide ourselves around barbed wire fences and frozen ponds, over patches of ice, and through evidence of animal dwelling (if you catch my drift!) The ground was lumpy and uneven, so not ideal tripod stabling terrain, but it’s land that’s normally utilised by horses so we certainly didn’t expect anything different.
Warming my hands on the mug of earl gray I’d ordered at the bar (I know, i know, I should have ordered a Guiness, or a Baileys, or even a whisky, but I’m not a fan of whisky and I needed a warm liquid running through my veins), we picked a spot in the field, set up our borrowed tripod as best we could using a piece of rolled up card to secure the mount, and waited.
In all honesty we didn’t have to wait long, and our guide (who talked us through a lot of the science behind the Northern Lights on our journey to this remote location) was spot on when she predicted that we should see a display of the lights at “around 10:30pm.” Apparently the Aurora Borealis are active earlier in the autumn and spring; we may have had to wait until gone midnight in the middle of winter.
So, at 10:20pm, when we were still grappling clumsily with the tripod on some rather unstable ground, and I was engrossed in taking photographs of the moon reflecting beautifully in the lake down below, Stu caught my attention and pointed up at the sky ahead of us.
At first it looked like he was pointing at a few wispy clouds, until I noticed that said clouds had a slight green tinge to them. Now I had been warned that a lot of the time the Aurora Borealis can be difficult to spot with the human eye, but I didn’t anticipate just how faint they would be when they first appeared.
For the next 45 minutes or so, we watched as they waxed and waned, forming a vivid green arc across the sky, an Aurora rainbow, stretching over the tiny cluster of houses nestled down below.
Sometimes they’d form layers of horizontal lines, and it was almost like the sun was shining through them from below these lines. Like crepuscular rays, shafts of green light were being projected up into the star-filled sky.
Other times the heavens appeared to be brushed with streaks of green paint.
The strangest part is that when you photograph the Aurora Borealis, the colours as they appear on the photograph are so much more vivid and the patterns much more defined, than they appear to the human eye. Moreover, at points when – to the human eye – they seemed to be gaining strength and intensity, the colours appeared weaker on the digital camera’s display, and vice versa.
Once the light show was over (or so we thought) and we could barely feel the tips of our fingers, we retreated inside for some warmth and shelter from the wind – which had picked up a little since we arrived. We’d had just enough time to grab a hot drink and use the facilities when we were distracted by a mass exodus of people rushing towards the back door, and someone shouting, “the lights are back on again!”
We joined the hundreds of people trying to exit the building through a gap large enough for two, and eventually made it back outside. Unfortunately we’d missed most of what appeared to have been an amazing display: by the time we’d found a spot of land and stabilised the camera and tripod upon it, the lights once again began to wane.
With the exception of a brief stop on the journey back to Reykjavík, that was the last time we saw the Aurora Borealis, the unusual phenomenon we’d flown all the way to Iceland to witness. Besides feeling extremely tired and acutely aware of how little sleep was on the horizon for us (a 7am flight home seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time of making the booking, but was a much less inviting concept when we were dropped back at hostel at 1:30am, only hours beforehand), I wasn’t experiencing the high I expected to feel, having been able to cross ‘See the Northern Lights’ off my bucket list.
I guess, like a multitude of others, I’d been expecting something a lot more spectacular. I’d been expecting to witness scenes like those in the photographs you see online. I’d hoped to see the Aurora Borealis dancing majestically across the sky. In reality I knew there were no guarantees I’d get my Northern Lights sighting. Just 12 hours beforehand I’d resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t. But I did. Yes, it may not have been the most spectacular display in the world, but it was still a display. I came to Iceland to see the Northern Lights and – in no uncertain terms – I got what I came for.
- We booked out tour through Viator. The local company they use is Iceland Excursions. The tour began at 8:30pm, but pick-ups from hotels and hostels within Reykjavík start half an hour beforehand. Due to the trouble we had on our Golden Circle tour, I would always advise waiting outside your accommodation. We arrived back at our hostel at 1:30am, however I imagine the return times will vary depending on what time the Northern Lights appear (or if in fact they appear at all)
- Make sure you wear lots of layers, have a hat that covers your ears, a scarf, and a pair of warm gloves. I wore a three quarter length fur-lined paddington bear style duffle coat, so my legs were insulated, but my partner only wore a short coat, and he struggled trying to keep the bottom half of himself warm. Although the temperatures were not extreme, it’s the standing in one place for hours that really chills you.
- Make sure you set up your camera and tripod before you arrive. Unless you have a good torch (which wouldn’t have been a bad idea actually!), you’ll struggle to read your camera’s dials and display. I used an ISO setting of 800 and a shutter speed of 15 seconds. I’d also recommend using a remote control, as even the action of pressing the shutter can cause blur at such a slow shutter speed.
- Don’t expect too much. At the end of the day the Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon and – despite scientists’ best efforts – no-one can predict nature. Also bear in mind that photographs online can be digitally manipulated, and you never know how many frames the photographer shot prior to getting that one perfect shot.
Are the Northern Lights on your bucket list? Or have you witnessed them? I’d love to hear how your experiences compare 🙂