About the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon which illuminates the night sky with many possible combination of colours. Many visitors are coming to Iceland with the hope to see the lights. They are called Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis in the Northern hemisphere and Southern Lights or Aurora Australis in the Southern hemisphere.
What causes the Auroras?
Until the end of the 19th century, Northern Lights were a total mystery for everyone. Kristian Birkelund, a Norwegian scientist finally found the exact explanation for this phenomenon. He was the first man to capture the auroras on photographs.
It all begins with the sun. The sun works like a power plant, energy is created deep inside of it. The temperature is over 14 million degrees and the pressure is so high that it creates magnetic fields. The strongest ones push their way up through the surface and the electrically charged hot gas, also called plasma drags the magnetic field further outwards. The magnetic field stretches and breaks, which creates a solar storm.
Solar storms can reach speeds over 8 million kilometers per hour, thanks to the solar wind. After 18 hours traveling throughout the galaxy, the storm finally reaches Earth. Our planet Earth is provided with a magnetic field, which will deflect the solar storm. The two different magnetic fields couple together and create a funnel for the gas to stream down on the daylight side of the pole, creating daylight auroras. Later on, the magnetic fields stretch further back and couple together again. The magnetic rubber band breaks and the gas from the solar storm streams along the magnetic lines towards the poles on the night side, creating nighttime auroras.
It looks really complicated, but the result is simply amazing. To sum up: the lights are collisions between electrically charged particles (electrons) from the sun and Earth’s magnetic field, or magnetosphere. During its long journey, the electrons change their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules. When the molecules return to their original state, they release photons, small bursts of energy which are represented by lights. Auroras are only visible up North and down South because Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the poles.
Where to see the Northern Lights?
Aurora Borealis can be seen in countries near or inside the Arctic Circle. The further North, the better chances to see those natural wonders. They are mostly seen in Iceland, Greenland, Lapland, Alaska and Canada. The Southern Lights can be seen in Tasmania, Antarctica and Patagonia.
Iceland is definitely the perfect place to see them, with spectacular sceneries such as glacier lagoons, iconic waterfalls or picturesque fjords. The strength of Iceland is that, as it is not much populated, nature is everywhere and there are not many superficial lights. Plus, the Ring Road goes all around the country, which is ideal to drive around the coastline to find the best spot. Reykjavík being the northernmost capital on Earth, it allows visitors who are only staying for a few days in the city to see the Northern lights. However, it is essential to go away from the street lights to better see the colorful lights. The Grotta Lighthouse in the West end of the city is a popular viewing spot.
Important factors to see auroras properly are the strength of the lights, the amount of clouds and the darkness. It is always better to check the forecast beforehand to know where the auroras can be seen, how strong they will be and where there are less clouds. However, just like the weather forecast, this can be a bit inaccurate sometimes. The things to remember is to escape the light pollution and find a really dark spot. Try to hunt auroras during a moonless night for optimal results. The strength of the lights depends on the recent solar activity.
The best time to see the Northern Lights
The best time during the year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is from September to April. They are always here all year round, but winter is definitely the best time to see them, due to lower light pollution. Indeed, during summer, Iceland doesn’t have much nighttime. Sometimes, the sun doesn’t even set, which makes it impossible to see auroras. The midnight sun, however, is also a beautiful phenomenon to see from the end of May to the end of July, with a stronger impact around June 21. In the contrary, during winter, it is almost always dark, as we just have some hours of daylight, especially in December and January. The chances to see auroras increase a lot during this season.
Typical Northern Lights hunting tours
Exploring and hunting down the auroras alone can be a bit tricky. Without a car, it is not easy to observe the northern lights. However, with a car, the driving conditions in winter can be really tough and hazardous, especially for people who are not used to driving in the snow, with slippery roads and fog. Then, the help and tips of a professional guide is really helpful and allows to save some precious time. There is nothing to worry about while in a guided tour. The guide will drive the visitors to the place where the best conditions are at the time.
We operate aurora tours from September to April. There are many options to see auroras on a tour.
This is the standard bus experience. After being picked up, the visitors will be taken to the best location and try to spot the longed-for auroras with a guide. This is perfect for those who want to see the Northern lights without spending much as it is the cheapest tour. Free photographs are offered during the tour, as taking a picture of these moving lights can be really delicate without the appropriate equipment.
The Northern Lights Explorer tour in a Super Jeep can take the visitors further out, where not many people are able to reach, which increases the chances of seeing auroras. In this small group tour, the expert guide will take pictures of the amazing lights and tell stories about it.
In the evening, the Whale Watching boats are used for Northern Lights hunting in the North Atlantic Ocean. Everyone can enjoy this tour as there is no minimum age. From the old harbour of Reykjavik, the boat will clear off the coast to avoid light pollution. The guides will, of course, check the forecast and explain the natural phenomenon so that tourists can better understand it.
Taking a multi-day tour is basically increasing the chances to see the northern lights. The more nights spent out there, the more opportunities. Plus, discovering the best locations around Iceland driving a car can be really dangerous during the wintertime for those who are not used to drive in bad conditions.
Beliefs about the Northern Lights
As the Northern Lights are such a magical phenomenon, there are many different beliefs about them from all around the world. For example, in Finland, it is said that the lights are just snow twirled up in the skies because an arctic fox is sweeping the fresh snow with its tail while running. The Sami people of Lapland thought that the lights were created from the spume of water ejected from whales. In Alaska, the people used to think that conceiving a child under the lights will bring him or her luck.
For Icelanders, the Northern lights were the fierce Valkyries, an incarnation of female strength and power in the Norse mythology. The winged women are believed to fly around in the sky preparing for battles and deciding who will live and who will die. Their armors reflected on Earth, creating those moving lights. The Auroras were also thought to be the Bifrost Bridge in the Norse mythology, which is a glowing and pulsating arch leading the fallen warriors to Valhalla, the final resting place. Icelandic people also used to relate the lights to childbirth, assuring that they would relieve the pain of delivery. However, if the woman giving birth gave a look at the auroras, she would have a cross-eyed child.
As Iceland is rich in folklore about elves and trolls, even today some children think that the Northern lights are dancing elves.
The possible colors
Northern lights can be in various different colors. The variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. Green and purple are the most common auroras. Here is the list of all the possible colors and their characteristics.
The green color is caused by colliding oxygen molecules located from 95 to 200 kilometers (59 to 124 miles) above Earth’s surface. The red-colored auroras are also caused by oxygen molecules but they are located much higher, about 320 kilometers (200 miles). Those auroras are difficult to see with the naked eye, but look awesome on pictures. They can also appear white if there are too many colors mixed or if they are faint. The purple and blue auroras are affected by nitrogen molecules and are located within 90 kilometers (56 miles). Pink and Yellow auroras are only visible when red and green lights mix together.
In addition to a wide range of colors, the Northern lights have an infinite possibility of shapes. The basic forms are: Arcs, Corona, Diffuse, and Drapery.
The most common shape is the drapery, which can be described as flickering curtains. Arc auroras will remind everyone of a rainbow, but with just a few colors, and corona, maybe the most impressive ones, are shaped like a crown. Diffuse auroras are very rare. They don’t have any specific shape and are hardly seen with without certain devices.
How to photograph the Northern Lights?
It is necessary to bring the right equipment. Auroras don’t look good if on pictures taken with smartphones, even with a very good one. To get a decent shot of the lights, some specific photography equipment is required.
To begin with, a tripod is a must-have. To get nice and clearly defined photos, the camera needs to stay steady and this is possible thanks to a tripod. The auroras need a long exposure to draw themselves on the picture. The ideal exposure time is around 1-10 seconds, sometimes even longer. The shutter speed should be around 4 seconds in the beginning. Usually, a longer time is needed (about 4-15 seconds).
The camera has to have a manual setting and a lens with a big enough aperture (f/2.8-f/4.0). The goal is to capture as much light as possible. The manual mode should be on and the camera needs to shot in high ISO (800-3200). It is better to make some test shots to see what is the best ISO so that the picture is not too bright or not too dark. The lower the number is, the better the quality will be. A very high ISO will create noise on the picture. However, it also depends on the brightness of the aurora.
The wider the lens is, the better the picture will be. A lens with a large diaphragm is the key to a wonderful picture with the beautiful Icelandic landscape around the auroras. The diaphragm should be set on the largest that the lens provides, that is to say the lowest diaphragm number (1.4, 2.0 or 2.8). The lens also needs to have a focus indicator, manual focus is mandatory as the auto focus will not work for this kind of photograph.
A camera with image stabilizer is not necessary, it is even recommended to turn this function off. Any filter has to be taken off as well, such as UV filters. Activating the shutter release is a good advice to prevent from moving the camera and having a blurred picture.
It is best to adjust white balance on Auto White Balance as the auroras are moving fast with changing colors. Extra batteries are always a good idea to take during the long night expedition. The cold will empty every batteries (phones, cameras, …) faster than normal.