We visited Iceland in winter with the sole purpose of seeing the Northern Lights. While we were determined to have a great time even if we didn’t see them, boy was it nice that we were able to catch a glimpse. Makes all these cold temps and copious layers of clothing worth it!
What are they, anyway???
First things first, what are the Northern Lights, anyway? Here is my non-scientific explanation. Enjoy!
The Northern Lights (aka aurora borealis) appear after solar storms on the sun send charged particles hurling through space. Most of them deflect off the Earth’s magnetic field, but some get through the weaker fields at both poles. When these particles react with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, the atoms get excited (yipppeee!). As you’d expect after any great excitement (we’ll call them atomic parties in this case), there is an inevitable cool down period. In the case of atomic parties, this cool down period emits light. And specifically, the Northern Lights.
The intensity of the lights are based on 2 main factors: the number of particles the sun sends to the party and the clearness of the sky, so you can see the party happen. Clouds = no party to see. We had a lot of clouds during our stay. An additional factor is the presence of nearby ambient light (usually from cities). The darker the area, the easier the Northern Lights are to see.
Our first glimpse
As I mentioned in the previous post, we got our first glimpse of the lights at Kolsstaðir. At that point, we weren’t even sure if we were really seeing them, since they were so faint. Jeff set up a timelapse camera while we watched them and wondered if what we were seeing was real.
Here is what we saw first, on night 2 in Kolsstaðir:
As you could see at the very beginning, there were mere hints of green dancing in the left hand portion of the screen. With the naked eye, those were even more faint. Hence the reason we thought it was just our minds playing tricks on us. (We really wanted to see those lights!)
Northern Lights secret
That’s when we learned something that people generally don’t tell you:
The lights look brighter on camera than with the naked eye.
Or at least in our experience. Let me explain.
As I mentioned before, the weather was average during our stay. We were extremely lucky that the week of rain ended before we arrived and that a fresh layer of snow quickly transformed the soggy landscape into a winter wonderland.
That said, the conditions were less than average for aurora spotting — as Iceland’s aurora forecaster told us. The scale goes from 0 to 9 (worst to best) and during our stay the aurora score hovered between 2 (low) and 3 (moderate).
So it makes sense that we weren’t seeing much — and that they’d be hard to see. That isn’t always the way. With aurora scores at the high end of the scale, the lights take over the sky and create a wondrous work of art. We didn’t see that!
Our second glimpse
Despite staying up past midnight each night, we didn’t spot the lights again until we went out on a Northern Lights hunt from Reykjavik.
In a Super Jeep with a driver and 3 other folks, along with 2 other similarly-filled Super Jeeps, we went offroading on the Reykjanes peninsula to get sufficiently away from the (bright!) lights of Reykjavik city.
On this night, the aurora forecast was 3 (moderate). The temperature was a balmy -7degC/19degF. Jeff and I each had on more layers of clothing than we’ve ever worn in our lives (think: three pair of pants, two pair each of gloves and socks, at least 2 jackets, I lost count of how many tops, etc). Hopefully that helps set the scene.
Here is our first glimpse that night…We were thrilled (relieved?) to see this cosmic rainbow.
The aurora shifts, disappears, and sometimes dances as it pleases. Or in this case, it makes 2 cosmic rainbows.
Below, you’ll see me celebrating that we got to see some lights. According to our driver, this was the first they have seen of them in at least a week. Lucky us!
Over the course of a couple of hours, the lights disappeared and reappeared several times — looking different every time.
Our drivers had driven offroad (though on a bike track) and planted us in a bowl to shield us from the nasty winter winds. Thank goodness for that! I can only imagine how cold it would have been with wind — and how frustrating for those folks (including Jeff) trying to take pix with tripods!
Our final glimpse
After the offroading was complete around 11:30pm, the 3 drivers reconvened for one last pow-wow outside of the bowl. Two of the drivers took their Super Jeeps home but our driver asked us if we wanted to see any more or if we were ready to go home.
Since I’d just seen a hint of the lights behind us, I spoke up and said I’d love to see more. (The 3 French woman in our Jeep didn’t disagree but also didn’t seem thrilled with the decision.)
A mere 2 minutes up the road, we saw what turned out to be the best lights of our trip.
In this case, we think the pink/purple are the lights from the city. It’s best to be near pitch black to see the lights, but I liked the addition of the purply pink!
You can see how the middle of the arch seemed to dissipate first…
Then the rest of the arch faded away leaving only the tail.
I can absolutely understand why cultures throughout history have attributed all kinds of causes to these lights — ghosts, demons, gods, you name it. They are definitely otherworldly. The lunar-looking foreground also contributes to that feeling.
Once the green faded away, we were satisfied and ready to go home to a hot drink and a warm bed!
While these were the last lights we saw in the sky, we also visited Aurora Reykjavik — a small museum in Reykjavik dedicated to the Northern Lights. We recommend the museum. It provides a more scientifically sound explanation of the lights, while also providing all sorts of examples of gorgeous Northern Lights sightings from around the world.
They also had a 20+ minute video that bordered on a meditation session. Soft music played while gorgeous pix of the Northern Lights scrolled through. I was jelly by the time we left.
What about you?
Have you ever seen the Northern Lights? What was your experience? Please share!
On a different note, are there any travel musts on your bucket list? If so, please do tell! It’s the start of a new year, so there’s plenty of time to check something off your list…we highly recommend it!!