Are the northern lights on your bucket list? They were not on my list because I could not imagine ever being in the arctic to experience them. However, when I learned I would be living in Iceland for a year, the northern lights made it to #1 on my list!
If you Google “northern lights” you will get a barrage of photos and videos showing the beautiful hues of greens, pinks, and purples that appear to be dancing across the sky. The phenomena has been captured so often in fact, that it appears northern lights are common. In reality, seeing the northern lights takes time and patience, as I discovered.
Since arriving in Iceland nearly two months ago, I occasionally look up on clear nights to see if I can catch the aurora borealis. No luck. Since my first two weeks were in Reykjavik, I assume the city lights prevented me from seeing the phenomena that attracts millions of visitors each year to this unique island nation.
When I moved to Hólar University in northern Iceland, I was sure I would be amazed when I finally saw them. Because after all, I would be away from those bright city lights, right? On the rare occasion that it is not cloudy and despite the bright street lamps that line the streets of Hólar surely, I would be able to see bright green waves of light dancing across the sky. However, it is not quite that simple.
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, and the southern lights, aurora australis, are natural phenomena, generally near the magnetic poles caused by solar wind from sun spot activity that results in charged particles hitting the earth’s atmosphere. This activity peaks every 11 years with the last peak occurring in 2013. The most common colors we see fluttering 60 miles above, are gray and green with the infrequent reds, and blues. On rare occasions, they may even be accompanied by faint crackling sounds. Since I am not a physicist, I will spare any scientific explanation; there is plenty of literature online about this.
Last Friday was a rare occasion in which the sky was clear. So, I checked my Aurora app and there was a forecast of high probability of seeing the lights in my area- 40%, in fact. But those street lamps! So, I braved the 23:00 hour and the cold, and headed out in my little car. While driving, I caught a glimpse of pink, but it was very faint and only lasted a few seconds. Other than that, no color. Were the northern lights even there? I parked a mile from my apartment to avoid the lights, but all I saw was semi-cloud-filled sky interspersed with stars. So instead, I enjoyed the dense cluster of stars that make up the milky way. I continued driving because, well, I was hopeful and determined. This time, I parked 6 miles away from Hólar, and I remembered something a friend told me a few weeks ago, “The lights are not obvious, and they look like clouds.”
Now this made sense! The “clouds” I was looking at were slowly changing shape, not floating across the sky like typical clouds. These gray “clouds” were morphing into large spikes above me retreating and returning. Yet still, there was no color. I grabbed my Canon DSLR camera (boy, do I wish I had learned how to set the shutter speed), set it at ISO 800 and slowed the shutter speed-by accident. And there it was! In the camera’s viewer, I took a picture with a 15 second shutter speed and those “clouds” suddenly turn green in the picture.
It was enough to know I was looking at the Northern Lights even though they were gray. In the dark night sky, they simply appear like cloudiness, like the milky way when viewed from a moonless desert sky. What you will notice is the slight movement and wisps of clouds that appear to be spiking upwards. On this particular night, there was a grayish, perfectly round, portion of a ring across the sky in front of me. Sometimes, the greens, pinks, and purples, are clearly visible with the naked eye, but as I read the experiences of others, gray is quite common. Eventually, I figured out that the gray movements were not clouds, but the dancing forms of the northern lights! What was clear to me, was the peaceful experience I was having in the quiet, dark, loveliness of northern Iceland without the distraction of people, city lights, and traffic while being as close to the north pole as I may ever be.
There are several scientific websites, individual accounts, and photographers from professional to novice; each of them have a different description of what they viewed during the auroras, describing colors ranging from gray to bright red, from stillness to spectacular performances. Confirmed by the locals who have experienced the auroras their whole lives, the brilliant photos we see online are not what is witnessed in person. Consider, for every beautiful photo displaying the beautiful dancing lights, there are some 1000 other photos that didn’t make the cut. It appears to be a stroke of luck. Simply, the images online are really just slow shutter speeds and photographic expertise; it’s not really what you’ll see. For me, it was not what I imagined it to be, but that does not mean I will stop hunting! I have eight more months before the midnight sun arrives (another story for another time) so I’ll keep searching!
If you are planning to visit the north or south regions of the earth to view the auroras, be prepared; they are unpredictable. The auroras should enhance your vacation but should not be the basis. After a long day of hiking or visiting waterfalls, you might just get lucky, and the auroras will add a unique experience to your vacation!
This is an excellent scientific read about the phenomena:
You can find various descriptions of observations in several personal blogs. Aurora forecast – hint – coincide with magnetic storms