Icelandic Northern Lights enchant our guest writer Nancy Claus. There are few natural phenomena quite as awe-inspiring to behold as the magical northern lights. Perhaps rivalled only by a total solar eclipse or a volcanic eruption.
Icelandic northern lights must be seen to be believed
No amount of images or videos circulating on the internet can truly convey the feeling of what it’s like to be surrounded by them, and see them in all their glory in real life. They will completely overwhelm you, to an extend where you can only utter sounds of sheer admiration, with a fading voice due to being blown away.
The Northern Lights are elusive
Yet the elusive northern lights are notorious for their whimsy and unpredictable diva behavior. Sometimes they will not turn up when they are supposed to. And on other occasions they crash onto the scene completely unannounced, demanding your immediate attention. Because, they’re here! It’s the northern lights! You never know how long they fancy staying, or when they will return.
What are the perfect conditions for seeing northern lights in Iceland?
Some say you can’t see the northern lights in summer. And that it has to be really cold for them to appear. I can say from my own experience that is not true. Cold in itself has nothing to do with it. It just needs to be dark enough, relatively cloudless, and the magical ingredient has to occur: a solar flare, spewing forth from a coronal hole on the sun’s surface when it’s facing the Earth, its charged particles colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field . The resulting energy lights up the sky in a brilliant display of moving colours, circling around the latitudes where it enters the magnetic north and south pole of the Earth. That’s the magical zone where the aurora oval is situated.
And Iceland is right underneath it, which means you will see northern lights all around you when they fancy showing up. Including multi-coloured coronas bursting out above you and branching out to all sides when an X-rated flare is coughed up by the sun.
Even though the activity goes up and down during an 11-year cycle, you can still see northern lights in Iceland when the sun’s coronal holes are less active.
First view of the northern lights in Iceland
I’ve actually seen my first glimpse of northern lights at a time when solar activity was almost at its minimum, in 2007, in one of the least likeliest places – in the middle of Reykjavík, at the end of August. I was standing on the balcony of my guesthouse next to Hallgrímskirkja late at night, having a midnight coffee and enjoying the view.
Unbelievable beauty of the Icelandic northern lights
And then it suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I almost choked on my coffee, and at first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was very faint and subtle; a wisp of light appearing for a few seconds before it faded into darkness again. But after a few minutes I saw it again, and it was definitely an aurora. Even though it was tiny, there was no mistaking it. Little curtains of green light were flowing & moving across the sky, disappearing briefly, and then they reappeared again. It was nowhere near as grand like the massive blasts of lights you’ll see on postcards and pictures on the internet, but I was in awe nevertheless, overwhelmed by a feeling of happiness & gratefulness – to see them when I least expected it.
Seeing the lights again
Unfortunately I didn’t see them again after that, even as I went on travelling to more remote parts of Iceland, with much clearer skies. Proverbially screaming in frustration, because they wouldn’t show up with all the right conditions being present.
It wasn’t until early October 2015 before I could see them again, in all their full-blown glory.
Preparing for the northern lights show
I had talked my friend into going with me to Iceland, again, while we already went and cruised along the south coast the year before. But, being a like-minded geology and natural phenomena enthusiast, he wasn’t difficult to convince, and one of the many reasons was the likeliness to see northern lights. According to the predictions based on the 28-day cycle of the sun around its own axis, there would be a massive sunspot with coronal mass ejection potential facing the Earth, and chances would be highly likely to have northern lights at a very convenient time during our trip.
There was already some disputed and unclear activity going on when we were in Reykjavík, but that wasn’t very convincing. It didn’t really get going until we got to Stykkishólmur, which was the day the solar flare was due to arrive.
As it was getting darker, anticipation increased. We were finishing our meal at the restaurant by the harbour, and my friend just had to go outside to check if any activity could already be observed. Moments later, he came rushing back, frantically waving.
It was on. In a big way.
We jumped in the car and quickly got to a darker spot just outside town, at the foot of a hill called Helgafell.
Electromagnetic particles light up the sky
The skies opened up and flares of electromagnetic charged particles & energy from out of space came pouring in, colliding with the Earth magnetic field, creating a display of light so magnificent it took your breath away. Massive green curtains dropping down with purple tips on their edges, below and above, constantly shifting and changing and moving in all directions. It was literally out of this world. It filled the whole sky, and it went on for hours on end. You just didn’t know where to look next out of sheer excitement and ecstasy. Even the locals were impressed by the Icelandic northern lights.
Seeing the northern lights is the perfect birthday party
And my friend was over the moon, because he actually had them for his birthday. When they finally slowed down a little, we went back to the guesthouse to have a celebratory drink of Brennivín.
It was difficult to go to sleep after all this excitement. They just kept on going. When we looked outside, activity had increased again. At some point I woke up in the middle of the night, and they were still at it. There was lots of stuff hanging in the sky, flaring up at irregular intervals. The next evening, the Icelandic northern lights became visible as soon as dusk settled in.
Be careful when looking up!
We were still bumbling along Snæfellsnes on our way back to Stykkishólmur, as we had started our rúntur (driving round) around the peninsula a bit later than initially intended.
Serious warning! Driving a vehicle along small & windy Snæfellsnes roads in the dark while northern lights are exploding overhead on all sides is potentially lethal. I had difficulties keeping my eyes on the road. Do not, under any circumstance, continue driving while they are unfolding in front of you. They are extremely distracting. Go to the nearest turn-off where you can park safely to watch them, and to avoid possible accidents.
Luckily we happened to be very close to Kirkjufell, which provides a spectacular backdrop to the Icelandic northern lights action. And there’s a good place to park too.
Photos courtesy of Nancy Claus and Freek Slangen.