Last update: 21 January 2020
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. 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 with your own eyes. 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.
This is my story about hunting the whimsical northern lights in Iceland, how to find them, and what it’s like to experience them in all their full-blown glory.
A giant column of northern lights erupting from Eyjafjallajökull. Photo by Ruth Zohlen.
The whimsical behaviour of Aurora Borealis
The elusive northern lights are notorious for their whimsy and unpredictable diva behaviour. 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 Aurora Borealis! You never know how long they fancy staying, or when they will return.
Summoning the northern lights on Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, on a full moon night in September 2017. Photo by Ruth Zohlen.
Myths and misunderstandings
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 of living, travelling and hunting northern lights in Iceland in various periods of time that this is not true. Cold in itself has nothing to do with it. Yes, it will be too light to see them between mid-May and mid-August. But I have seen magnificent displays at the end of August on several occasions (and virtually nothing in December and January). The depth of winter is not necessarily the best time to see them. Also because of the added challenge of frequent snowstorms from hell, resulting in road closures and (very) difficult driving conditions. Snowstorms are no joke in Iceland.
When can you see northern lights?
Especially the autumn period has good chances. The end of August, September and October is the best time to see northern lights. This is when the Autumn Equinox Extravaganza coronal hole comes around, and it consistently delivered the most active outbursts over the past years. In spite of the solar minimum we are now approaching in 2020. An added benefit is that the weather is still fairly good in autumn, and not as cold as winter and early spring. The activity of coronal holes (and the resulting northern lights) tends to be highest around the autumn and spring equinoxes.
Northern lights in Þórsmörk, during the Autumn Equinox Extravaganza in September 2018.
Northern lights near Vík in October 2016.
Crucial conditions for aurora hunting
It needs to be dark enough, relatively cloudless, and the magical ingredient has to occur: a solar flare, spewn forth from a coronal hole on the sun’s surface 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 our planet.
That’s the magical zone where the aurora oval is situated.
And Iceland is right underneath it. This means you will see northern lights all around you when they fancy showing up. Including multi-coloured coronas bursting out above 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 solar cycle, you can still see northern lights in Iceland when the sun’s coronal holes are less active.
Tantalizing little glimpses
I actually saw 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 near Hallgrímskirkja late at night, having a midnight Wilderness Coffee and enjoying the view.
And then it suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I almost choked on my coffee. 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 reappearing again. It was nowhere near as grand as the massive blasts of lights you’ll see on postcards and pictures on the internet, but I was in awe nevertheless. And overwhelmed by a feeling of happiness & gratefulness – to see them when I least expected it.
Unfortunately I didn’t see them again on that trip. 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.
The Autumn Equinox Extravaganza
It wasn’t until early October 2015 that I could see them again, in all their full-blown glory.
I had talked my friend into going with me to Iceland, again, after 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 predictions based on the 28-day cyclus of the sun around its own axis, there would be a huge sunspot with coronal mass ejection potential facing the Earth. Chances would be highly likely to have northern lights at a very convenient time during our trip.
There was already some unclear and disputed activity going on when we were in Reykjavík, but that hadn’t been very convincing. It didn’t really get going until we got to Stykkishólmur, which was the day the solar flare was due to arrive.
Northern lights circling & dancing above Helgafell, near Stykkishólmur.
Energy from out of space
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 anything could already be observed. The next moment he came rushing back in, 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. The skies opened up and flares of electromagnetic charged particles & energy from out of space came pouring in, colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field, creating a display of light so magnificient it took your breath away.
Electromagnetic charged northern lights colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field.
Aurora Borealis pouring in!
Sky-filling northern lights
Massive green curtains dropping down with purple tips on their edges, above and below. Constantly shifting and changing, moving in all directions and tumbling over one another.
Filling up the sky!
It was literally out of this world. It filled the whole sky, and went on for hours on end. You just didn’t know where to look next out of sheer excitement and ecstasy. In the middle of all this extravaganza even a heart-shaped northern light showed up in the sky.
Heart-shaped northern lights 💚
It’s mind-boggling to realise that the northern lights actually make the Earth’s magnetic field visible to the naked eye.
Sleep deprevation due to light pollution
Timing couldn’t have been better for my friend, 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. Even the locals were impressed.
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.
Sleep deprevation due to light pollution… 😉
The next evening, they became visible as soon as dusk settled in. We had started our rúntur around Snæfellsnes a bit later than intended, and were still bumbling along on our way back to Stykkishólmur – and all hell broke loose.
Driving a vehicle along small & winding Snæfellsnes roads while northern lights are exploding overhead on all sides is potentially lethal. They are extremely distracting. Do not, under any circumstance, continue driving when they are unfolding in front of you. Go to the nearest turn-off where you can park safely, to avoid accidents.
It was very difficult to focus & keep my eyes on the road, and I just skidded into the first farm driveway I saw. Luckily we weren’t far from Kirkjufell at that moment. So after some gasping and catching our breath, we continued our precarious journey to watch the show in comfort there – with the spectacular backdrop of the triangular mountain as an added bonus. There’s a good place to park too 🙂
Northern lights over Kirkjufell, near Grundarfjörður on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Photo’s (mostly) by Freek Slangen. You can find more pictures & info on his own website (in English and Dutch).
GeekPic @ Stykkishólmur.
Northern lights forecast in Iceland
You can find a handy 3-day aurora activity forecast on the Veður (Icelandic Met Office) website. It also shows the cloud coverage predictions – a very important detail for your hunting options & opportunities. Look for the white spots! SpaceWeatherLive has detailed information about coronal holes, mass ejections, solar flares and other aurora-related activity happening in real time, as well as a general 27-day Kp index forecast. Photographer Mads Peter Iversen wrote an excellent article about the art of predicting auroras, and explains into detail the variety of factors & circumstances involved. There’s much more to it than just the Kp-number! And recently Aurora Forecast Iceland launced a new and very user-friendly site with lots of information. Happy hunting! 🙂
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
Skál to the northern lights! The start of the aurora hunting season, at the end of August 2016 in Reykjavík.
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This story was originally published on Stuck in Iceland Travel Magazine (in a slightly different version) on 27 September 2016.
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