We found them! In a true miracle, the clouds parted (literally), long enough for us to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, and they were definitely the best and most anticipated sight of the trip.
What are they?
The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is the stunning visual display that comes about as a result of charged particles from the sun interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere. There are a bunch of different possible colors depending on what gas particles are involved in the reaction. The most common color is green – caused by interactions with oxygen in the lower parts of the atmosphere. Higher interactions with oxygen cause rarer red auroras.
No matter what people say, or how many pictures you see of them, they are definitely best seen in real life. They don’t seem real, even (or especially?) when you’re watching them. Constantly in motion, they basically fade in and out of existence before your eyes. The ones we saw started very strong and got weaker over time. When we first walked out and saw them, there was a glowing green streak across the entire sky, starting over a mountain to the North, and stretching over the town until fading out in the East. They pretty much stayed in the same general area, though there were moments when they were visible further in each direction.
Also, it seems that every single picture of the Northern Lights is taken with a long exposure. I’ve seen everywhere from one to thirty seconds, and probably even longer. The pictures I took were only one second exposures, because that’s the longest I have on my little point and shoot camera, but they are still gorgeous. Admittedly, though, the pictures look bigger and brighter than the Aurora actually was; but the pictures are nowhere near as gorgeous, since they catch none of the motion.
Predicting the Northern Lights
The strength of the Northern Lights can be predicted, with increasing accuracy as the date and time draws nearer. They are typically strongest during the months of the equinoxes – spring in March and autumnal in September. Because the Earth’s magnetic poles are in line with the Suns’ emissions during these months, more of the charged solar particles make it into the atmosphere, where they interact with the atmosphere. Additionally, the solar emissions work on an approximately 11 year cycle; this cycle’s peak is predicted to be in 2013, or potentially early 2014.
Approximate predictions can be made a month in advance, because the Sun and the Earth line up in the same orientation every 27-28 days. If there is a strong solar storm one month, the probability of a good show the next month is higher. These predictions could be useful in deciding when to book flights for a trip, especially if one is heading into Alaska or Canada from the US, or into Scandinavia from Europe.
Better predictions can be made two to three days in advance, because the solar emissions take about two and a half days to get from the Sun to us. As a result, large solar flares that are observed can imply large Auroras two or three nights later. These predictions would be helpful for trips that are planned with start and end dates but nothing in between. We used it to help us decide where to stay our last night in Iceland.
The best predictions come one hour out, when the solar emission data is recorded by satellites as they enter Earth’s atmosphere. These were very helpful in determining when to head out for the night, but not very good for long term planning.
If you are planning a trip, the best predictions, by far, come from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute. You can look at different regions, or different days. A 28 day kp index prediction is also available in the bottom right.
There was a large solar flare right before our trip, a large storm on March 14, which resulted in a beautiful show the Sunday before we arrived. Seriously, that was all anyone could talk about whenever we asked about the Northern Lights. That night hit a 6 on the kp index, which measures the strength of the Northern Lights on a 1-9 scale. Based on what I’ve seen, it seems the kp index is typically at 2, and rarely reaches as high as 4. The night we saw the lights, they were a 2 and beautiful.
Catching Them in Iceland
People say you have to get away from the city lights to get the best view of the Aurora, and while I’m sure that is true, nothing in Iceland seems big enough to have much effect. We headed out into the countryside in Southern Iceland for the best shot, but the weather didn’t cooperate – the clouds were blocking the entire sky both nights we were out in the middle of nowhere. We even woke up at 2:30am each night to check on the cloud cover; there was no clearing.
For cloud cover forecasts, the Icelandic Weather site is incredibly helpful. Their site shows forecasts for cloud cover at three levels – high, medium, and low. The high and middle clouds are about the height that the Aurora occurs; the low clouds basically just block your view. On the right, you can see the kp prediction, as well as sunset, moonset, and sunrise times for the evening. The site is also great for temperature and wind speeds around Iceland – follow the links on the left of the page.
The night we did see the Northern Lights, we were staying at Hotel Ork in Hveragerdi, about an hour outside of Reykjavik to the south. Hveragerdi is a beautiful town, and the lights weren’t bright enough to limit our viewing abilities – the lights were bright and beautiful even over the city. We did drive a bit North to see them better, taking Road 1 about ten minutes out of town, where we stopped on a random side road at the top of a hill. If I had to guess, I’d say it was somewhere between Roads 38 and 39, but don’t take my word for it. From there, we had a splendid 360 degree view of the area, limited only by a small orange haze from Hveragerdi one way and a similar white haze from Reykjavik. At one point, a couple of tour buses on the Northern Lights tours came by, so we must have been in a truly prime viewing spot.
The biggest hurdle to our viewing wasn’t the city lights, but the clouds. Perhaps we were just there at an inopportune time, or perhaps March is a particularly stormy month, but we were limited by full cloud cover all but one night, and lots of wind every single day. I’d definitely say that the longer you’re there, the more likely you are to see the Northern Lights, which is exactly what happened to us. Happy hunting!