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All About the Aurora Borealis

|August 17, 2017
Anthropologist, social media guru, Icelandic nature and food enthusiast.

The Aurora Borealis, the beautiful, colorful, dancing lights in the sky. What are they? Where can you see them and when is the best time to do so? We share our guide to spot this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

The Aurora Borealis is something that most people don’t have the fortune to see multiple times in their lives, if ever. These bright dancing lights in the sky are the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. These collisions are seen from the earth like bright waves of colorful lights and can be seen from both the earth’s magnetic poles, south, and north.

Northern Lights Tours in Iceland

The lights or auroras have different names depending on where you are seeing them from.
If you are in the south they are called the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis and in the North, they are called the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis.

In this blog, as in Iceland, we’ll discuss the Aurora Borealis.

What causes the Aurora Borealis?

Auroras are formed when fast moving electronically charged particles from space and oxygen or nitrogen gas collide in our atmosphere.

These electrons (electronically charged particles) originate in the magnetosphere, the region of space controlled by Earth’s magnetic field. As they move into the Earth’s atmosphere, the electrons change their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules. When the molecules return to their original, normal state they let go off photons which are small bursts of energy in the form of light.

The variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that collide.

The temperature above the surface of the sun is millions of degrees in Celsius. Collisions between gas molecules are very common at this temperature and explosive.

Free electrons and protons get thrown from the sun’s atmosphere when the sun is rotating and get through the holes in the magnetic field. When they then get blown towards the Earth by the solar wind, the charged particles are largely deflected by the earth’s magnetic field. But, the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at either pole and because of this some particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles close to the poles. These collisions give off light that we perceive as the dancing lights of the north (and the south). The collisions are the Auroras.

Northern Lights vs. Aurora Borealis

Some might think that there is a difference between these two but actually there is none. The difference is just in the names. Northern Lights and Aurora Borealis are the same phenomena just two different names for the same thing.

What is the best time to see the Aurora Borealis?

Iceland has an extreme difference with seasons when it comes to light. During summer time we have the famous midnight sun that keeps the sky bright 24/7 during this period the Aurora Borealis isn’t visible even though they might be there. During the darker months (winter time) the lights can be seen and the darker the better.
Just picture a white crayon drawn on a piece of black paper vs. a piece of light blue paper. This is pretty simple, the darker the sky is the better the lights can be seen.
The darkest months are from October-March but the lights can be equally as good in the months before and after you might just need to stay up later.

Another factor is the strength of the lights. The strength of the lights varies a lot and it’s good to check the forecast for the Icelandic Aurora Borealis before heading out. The forecast is usually pretty accurate a few days before.

The last factor I will mention is the clouds. IF the clouds are thick above they are lower than the actual lights so they will block the lights from being seen from earth.

So three main things we want, dark skies, strong lights and no clouds!

Where is it best to see the Aurora Borealis?

For the Aurora Borealis, the general rule is the further North you go, the better chance you have to glimpse this elusive phenomenon. The strength of the lights, the amount of clouds and the darkness are the three major factors.

Iceland is an excellent place to see the Aurora Borealis, and I have even seen them from the capital BUT getting away from city lights is always best so I will say anywhere in Iceland really, as long as you are away from all light pollution.

Different colors of the Aurora Borealis

Green: Particles collide with oxygen at 90-200 km height. This is the most common colors as the eye is also the most sensitive to the color green.
Dark Red: Particles collide with oxygen at a height more than 200 km. Dark red colors are most often seen the highest in the lights caused by electronically charged molecules that have excited the oxygen atom.
Bright Red: Nitrogen within 90 km. A common color when the solar winds get strong and very charged electrons excite the molecules.
Purple & Blue: Active Nitrogen.
Pink & Yellow When red and green lights mix together.

Photographing the Aurora Borealis

Cameras that can manage to take pictures of the auroras have to have a manual setting. The camera needs to be usable in high ISO setting which is often not the case for older cameras (7 years or older).

What lens to use

It’s best to use lenses that are panoramic and/or wide and have a large diaphragm. You can use a tight/close-fitted/close lens but if you want to have some landscape in the picture panoramic/wide lenses are best.

The lens needs to have a focus indicator as well to see where the focus is because autofocus does not work in this situation. This indicator is found on most finer lenses and is usually situated on top of it.

How to adjust everything

The camera itself should be adjusted to manual mode.

The diaphragm should be adjusted to the largest diaphragm the lens provides, the lower the diaphragm number is, the better, 1.4, 2.0 or 2.8 are the best ones.

The shutter speed should be adjusted to around 4 seconds in the beginning. A longer time of about 4-15 seconds is best. It’s not recommended to go over 20 seconds, as the camera will pick up what is known as the ‘star trail,’ drawing focus away from the Aurora.

The ISO (photosensitive/sensitive), should be adjusted to ISO 800 in the beginning. Most of the time ISO 800-3200 is used but the lower the number the better the quality and better colors. You can experiment with this number, it will all depend on how strong the aurora is.

When it comes to the lens it’s best to adjust it to manual focus and if your camera has image stabilizer, it’s best to turn that off. Also if you have some sort of a filter fastened on the front of the lens, a UV-filter or something similar you should take that off as well.

The focus should then be adjusted to infinity, there the window with the focus indicator should appear. If the focus is not stable in the lens you should turn the focus circle to the left or right, depends on the manufacturer which way the infinity setting is, and then a little bit back again, but only a little bit. It might be hard to get focus in these situations but if you have trouble with it, you can zoom out the lens to the max and try to focus on a star and then zoom back when the focus is there.

Last the camera is best placed on a tripod and if you have something called shutter release then it is good to use that but not necessary.

White balance is best to adjust on AW (auto white balance). The aurora is moving fast and the color changes also quickly so this setting is the best in this situation.

So, the basics are:

  • Put the camera on the tripod, take filters off of any and turn off the no shake
  • ISO should be adjusted to 800-3200.
  • The diaphragm should be as big as the lens provides.
  • Shutter speed should be 4-15 seconds.
  • White Balance adjusted to auto white balance
  • Take extra batteries with you, because it will empty fast in the cold.
  • Flashlight if possible so you can see what you are doing while adjusting the settings on the camera.

Guided Tours vs. Aurora Borealis on your own

Heading out to explore the Aurora Borealis on your own can be a real adventure but there are a few things you need to think about before.

First, you will need to have a rental car to drive out of the city or the house you are staying at, away from the lights. Driving in winter in Iceland can be hazardous, especially for those who are not used to driving in snow, slippery roads and fog, so be extra careful, make sure your car has good winter tires and remember always to keep your eyes on the road! As hard as it might be with all that beauty to the side of the road or in the sky.

Another thing is the darkness, you don’t go out searching for the lights unless it’s dark outside but this also means that getting around is more tricky. It’s not always easy to read signs and you might get lost. It is good to make a plan before setting off. Check the weather and aurora forecast. Most important is to know where there should be a gap in the cloud coverage and then think of a place in that area to head to where there should be good parking. Don’t stop in the middle of the road or even to the side of the road! That is very dangerous in the dark, as there will be many others out there with the same purpose as you!

When joining a Northern Lights tour, you have a guide that is an expert driving in Iceland and where to find them. You will not need to worry about a thing. You get picked up, taken to a place where the best conditions are at the time and then you can enjoy without any worries about getting back. The drivers know the way and roads in Iceland, they could basically do this in their sleep.
So if you are at all nervous about driving in Iceland let alone and then darkness is added on top join a tour. Don’t risk it, join a tour!

If you really want to do it on your own, have booked a self-drive tour and maybe already staying in the country side, and you are ready to drive in dark winter conditions, then go, explore on your own. Use en.vedur.is for the forecast and tips on where to go. And stay safe!

Photo captured by Norris Niman

What are the options for Aurora Borealis Tours in Iceland?

$ Joining a classic bus tour

This is the standard bigger bus experience. You will be picked up taken to the best location and get a guide to talk you through it. This is perfect for those looking to see the Aurora Borealis without spending much!

$ Boat ride from Reykjavík

The Whale Watching boats are used for Aurora Borealis hunting in the evening. It’s actually pretty cool but dress accordingly it’s cold, brrr!
The price of the Boat ride from Reykjavik is fair as well.

$$ Small group experience in a Super Jeep

This is more money but well worth it. The Northern Light Explorer tour in a Super Jeep can take you further out, where the bus might not be able to reach, this does up your chance of seeing the lights. Another benefit of going in a super jeep is that you will go in a smaller group.

Other options?

Joining the Laugavegur trek late in the season

It’s local knowledge that after the first of August, the Aurora Borealis is very common on the Laugavegur trail. You are so far away from any light pollution, located in the remote highlands, so isolated from the world. Then suddenly, the sky bursts into a celestial dance stage. There is no real way to explain this, but oh my! It’s something you will never forget.

This is also pretty much the only way to see the Aurora Borealis in Iceland so early in the season.

Trekking in Winter

You could alternatively hike out in winter to the Icelandic Highlands, such as Þórsmörk or Landmannalaugar. By this time of the year, you might even have these popular places to yourself. Getting there is difficult in winter though, so join a tour, again no need to risk anything. Enjoy life, have a great adventure but stay safe.

More information about the Northern Lights.

Have you ever seen the Aurora Borealis?

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