Did I see the Northern Lights? Check it off my bucket list? The lightshow in the sky was the whole motivation for braving the Icelandic winter.
Why not go in summer when the weather is nicer, the days are longer, and you don’t have to see the countryside in a 6-hours of daylight whirlwind timeframe? To see the Aurora Borealis of course. Everyone on my tour came as an Aurora hunter and it was pretty much the only “must do” on our collective wish list. On the first night, when our G Adventures CEO (Chief Experience Officer) Oliver was going over the itinerary, we were all thinking, cut to the chase, get to the part about the Lights.
YES, we got an Aurora Disco. I’d love to take credit for that awesome title, but Oliver came up with that one and it’s the most appropriate description I can think of. The Aurora did not disappoint when it finally showed up. But we had to work for it.
All Aurora photos shown here in this post were taken by my CEO Oliver with his expert eye, nice camera and essential tripod. Thank you @nordicsoul_iceland for sharing.
On our first full day Oliver said he thought we had a great chance to catch the Aurora. First of all, there’s a simultaneously exact and unreliable, scientific and BS, method to predicting the chance of seeing the Northern Lights on any given night. And there are a lot of apps for it, too. I agree some nights there’s a thick cloud cover and it seems that the skies are not going to clear. Or the solar activity is dormant and it doesn’t seem likely to show. But for the most part Mother Nature is in charge and it’s a crapshoot. You just hope for the best guestimate on it and say some prayers. Our first day was the day that we drove across the whole south of Iceland. Our hotel is called the Hali Country Hotel and it’s basically in the middle of Icelandic nowhere.
Here are the three things you need for an Aurora lightshow:
- Darkness. As dark as possible. 2. Solar Activity. A solar storm would be nice. 3. Clear skies. Stargazing is the consolation prize for not seeing the lights.
Oliver says that it’s always good to get the Aurora out of the way early so everyone can just enjoy the rest of the trip. People keep asking him what time the Northern Lights might show. As if they’re not aware it’s up to Mother Nature. He told us he’s ordered the Aurora show for 9 PM, so as not to disrupt our dinner. And that it would be best if we could get dessert in first as well. Hahah.
We’re checking multiple aurora predictor websites and apps. After dinner we bundled up and walked out to a dark field with our headlamps and phone flashlights lighting our path. Oliver brought his tripod and camera. A good camera on manual setting can catch the aurora even when our eyes cannot see it. We walked around, we stared at the sky, we got in some quality stargazing. Orion’s belt, the Dippers, and that Milky Way from the northern latitude… Breathtaking. Oliver took photos of us standing in front of the darkness and from his camera you can see a strip of green. But we couldn’t see it with our eyes. We stood around until we were too tired and cold to stay any longer and then we went back to the hotel. That was attempt number one.
In the middle of our trip there was a solar storm predicted. It was to last for 2-3 nights. On this night we were staying in the town of Selfoss, at the Hotel Ork Selfoss. The forecast was for clear skies. After finishing dinner and dessert we piled back in the minibus. We drove out to a dark field where there’s a good place to look north for the lights. There was a faint green glow in the distance. After a while you start to imagine that it’s getting bigger, brighter, and greener. But is it really? It was cold, dark and starry. The Milky Way and accompanying constellations in Iceland do not disappoint, even if the Aurora is stubborn.
Oliver set up his camera and tripod again, and caught some colors far off. We all took our pictures again, and like a greenscreen where you can’t see what’s going to appear, the lights did show up on his camera view. We eventually all lost interest in the faint light in the distance and decided to move on. That was attempt number two.
The next night we were on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Western Iceland. We stayed at a place called the Fransiskus Hotel. This used to be a Monastery but was converted to a hotel. It still has a beautiful chapel off the lobby and nuns are about.
On this night, Thursday, November 21, we had dinner reservations at a restaurant walking distance from the hotel. Since we’re on a peninsula here, there’s a harbor and fishing boats and cliffs around the sea. While we were eating Oliver had gone outside to check on his aurora monitors and scan the sky for stars. He came bounding back inside, very animated. He said his apps told him that the lights might show in the next few hours and he could see the stars in the sky. He knew a good place on a cliff to get away from the light pollution and he thought our chances were really good. Actually, I don’t remember what he said about our chances but he seemed very excited. Previously he had been all about managing our expectations, keeping perspective and acting neutral. I also think it had to do with the fact that it was getting to be now or never with our trip ending soon. Clearly he was throwing caution to the wind on this night and it was infectious. We all hurried back to the hotel to get warmer clothes and Oliver said we should come back out in 60 seconds. That’s how excited he was.
We walked to a cliff on the other side of a harbor. We had to climb some fairly steep stairs to get to the top. I can’t remember how long we waited. Maybe a half an hour. Some bright lights started to streak in the darkness. Eventually they were all around us. In front of us, right above us, behind us. They were thick streaks and thin streaks and they danced and moved overhead. They were multi-colored in washed out hues of green, yellow, pink and white. In front of us they shot up like needles of light and then the needles moved horizontally across the sky. Behind us the lights curved like ribbons and moved like snakes. When you see brilliant photos of the Aurora Borealis, the sky is very dark and the colors are very sharp. But to the naked eye they aren’t really that strong. For us though, the colors were very evident. They were dancing and swirling across the sky. Oliver’s photos shown here are beautiful. And he said it was the best Aurora he had seen so far this winter. He said getting to see colors besides green, like yellow and pink, is outstanding. Considering he’s taken a lot of groups out Aurora hunting and seen a lot of Northern Lights, that sounds pretty special to me.
Unexpected Bonus. Another Aurora sighting: Icelandair is lighting up the cabin during my flight home with the green, purple and yellow colors of the Northern Lights. They’ve made the lights actually dance around above the luggage compartment, near the ceiling. For the entire flight. Very clever Icelandair.
Finally, here are some little bits about Northern Lights hunting that I found from around the web. Feel free to believe at will or research further.
The North Atlantic jet-stream brings warm air up from the Caribbean which means that Iceland is far less cold than Alaska, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. That makes it much easier to stand out in the 0° cold watching for the Aurora (as opposed to -20°).
The Northern Lights are caused by electrically charged particles from the sun smashing into Earth’s magnetic field. This “solar wind” is funneled down to the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres, creating a horseshoe shape of excited green, red, and blue particles that swivel and shape-shift over the Arctic Circle. In a nutshell.
Even if you’re traveling to Iceland in the winter, be sure not to make the mistake of planning a Northern Lights hunt during a full moon, which can drown out the show. Arrive about five days before the new moon and you will have a very dark week ahead. We saw them 5 days before a new moon.
The Aurora Index— a scale which determines how strong the Northern Lights can appear. Although the scale goes all the way up to 9, ratings above 4-5 are rare, so a grade of 3 means good chances. (Oliver said this scale is misleading even though most people rely on it. The numbers also indicate where the lights will be strong and not just how strong they’ll be. Our special night was a 4.)
The most essential part of Aurora hunting is patience and the expectation of disappointment.
The most common color of the Northern Lights is fluorescent green, followed by pink and purple, then many shades of red, pink, blue, yellow and orange. The color depends on what kind of particles are ionizing in the atmosphere. Oxygen creates green and red lights, nitrogen creates pink and blue lights, while neon turns them orange.
Kudos to G Adventures. I give them all the credit for allowing me to check off this amazing bucket list dream. I was selected as a 2019 Ambassador of Change for G and it’s been my privilege to spread the word about the incredible good they are doing in the world, and now specifically Iceland. They are connecting tourists to local experiences in every part of the world, and really bringing travel to a grassroots level as means of lifting up impoverished, recovering, hidden, disabled and indigenous communities.
My trip to Iceland was memorable in every way. The trip was well planned. My itinerary, a partnership between G Adventures and National Geographic, was the Best of Iceland. And my CEO Oliver was experienced enough to know how the winter weather would affect us, how to manage our dwindling daylight, and he was able to come up with alternative plans if we needed them. And of course, he was our Aurora leader and photog.
If you have a dream to visit Iceland, to see the Aurora Borealis, or the lunar landscape, or to soak in the Blue Lagoon, or walk behind a waterfall, or hike on a glacier, or any of the many amazing things to do in Iceland, then contact me. I can help make the magic happen.
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