Hey All, this is the first post from the old blog – now recovered. It’s meant to be a practical guide on how to see the northern lights – travelling by a van. We give no guarantees that you will see it, but it might significantly boost your chances. So here we go!
- Go to Iceland in the aurora season (October to April). Stay there at least a couple of days.
- Buy a bottle of Primitivo or some ass-kicking Icelandic beer (Lei Fur No. 34 is my favourite) at the airport. This will relieve the pain if you’re unlucky with the northern lights.
- If possible, rent a camper to sleep just where you encounter the aurora
- Hunt for clear night sky following this Icelandic Met Office page
- If there are many cloudless spots, go north. Your chances will be higher than in the south
- Be vigilant between 8PM and 12PM. Weak aurora will resemble the milky way. Strong aurora will look like a gigantic green and pink tape.
- If you are lucky to see it, you’ll be speechless. Otherwise don’t forget you have some beverages in your car 🙂
THE LONG STORY
In February 2018 we went on a 5-days trip to Iceland. Since we know many people who went to Iceland for the same purpose and saw literally nothing, our expectations were lowered to zero. I mean, I was sure we would see it, but given all the historical data that we had this seemed quite improbable. It would be amazing to experience this fabulous phenomenon and witness the green and pink spectacle in the sky, but this requires a good portion of luck.. which we had! The picture below is an evidence of one of three nights with northern lights.
WHERE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
Principally they can be seen in the areas close to Earth’s magnetic poles. This might be very difficult in the southern hemisphere, since apart from Antarctica there is virtually no land in the polar areas. Plus, getting to Antarctica is close to impossible.
In the northern hemisphere there are a couple of lands which are blessed with the aurora: the Scandinavian Peninsula (Norway, Sweden, Finland), Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, northern Russia. For our trip we chose Iceland. Why? With the advent of WOW Air flights to Iceland became affordable and nowadays there are many convenient connections from major European cities. Flights apart, Iceland is home too many breathtaking natural wonders like glaciers, geysers, hot springs, volcanos, lava fields, waterfalls and more. It’s also very easy from the logistics point of view, as there is one main road that traverses the country. Last but not least, we simply love Iceland 🙂 It’s a place like no other.
Magnetic wind activity is measured using so called KP-index. Without going into details, it’s analogical to Beaufort scale for wind measurement or Richter scale for earthquakes. It ranges from 0 to 9, whereas 0 means there is virtually no magnetic wind activity and it can be barely seen in Svalbard or Greenland. Value 9 means it can be visible in southern France or northern Spain. But don’t count on it to happen – it’s extremely rare. Just go to Iceland. There you will be OK with KP-index equal to 3, and this happens quite often. The more north you are, the easier it will be to witness it.
But this is only part of the story. Since the magnetic pole is skewed from the geographical pole, with KP-index equal to 2, you will see the aurora in Akureyri (northern Iceland), but won’t observe it in Rovaniemi (northern Finland), although they are at the same latitude. This is because Iceland is more to the west, i.e closer to the magnetic pole than Finland. Conclusion: just go to Iceland 🙂 The picture below depicts where one will see the northern lights as a function of its magnitude. Fun fact: although Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki are considered to be far north, one will need very strong magnetic wind (KP-index=5) to witness the lights in the sky.
In the picture below you can notice that the aurora’s oval is slightly shifted towards Canada. This is not a mistake – it’s how the things are 🙂
WHEN TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
The season for northern lights starts in October and lasts until April. Too see the lights in the sky the following conditions must be met:
- The sky is clear. Aurora happens around 100km above the ground surface and if there are clouds between you and it, you simply can’t see it.
- It’s night and there is no light pollution (i.e. you rather won’t see it from a major city). The same way you can’t see the milky way from a city, you won’t be able to see the northern lights. Or, it won’t be as spectacular as it could be. Full moon won’t help here, but it won’t stop you from seeing the show.
- There is enough sun wind to see it in the latitude you’re at. Depending on its magnitude, it will be visible closer or further from the pole. To boost your chances of seeing it, you’ll move as much north as you can. Since Iceland stretches quite significantly in latitudinal direction, the northern lights will be easier to see and more spectacular in the north (e.g. in the Western Fjords or Akureyri).
In Iceland this unique phenomenon can be seen almost every day during the aurora season, given there are no low or middle-altitude clouds. To chase for clear sky we used this page of Icelandic Met Office. Although we found its aurora forecast unreliable, it’s accurate when it comes to cloud prediction.
I can’t tell if these is a general rule or not, but the strongest aurora we saw was between 9PM and 11PM. At 8PM it was very weak and our cameras’ CMOS sensors were much better at seeing it than us. At that point long exposures times were our friends.
The peak activity was around 10PM. By that time the magic happens and the lights start to dance in the sky. They are green and pink and change rapidly, creating breathtaking shapes.
Many people stay in Reykjavik when they visit Iceland in winter. This is a big mistake, as you won’t be able to see the best. You’ll be also quite far from famous Icelandic hot pots and you will spend shitloads of money on your accommodation. What I’d suggest instead is to rent a camper van from one of dozens of companies. We decided to get it from Campersiniceland.com, since it had stationary heating, a gaz stove inside the car (many small campers will force you to leave the car to cook) and was reasonably priced. We paid 80 euros a day for rental in the low season (but high season for the aurora). It’s way cheaper than what you would pay for your stay in a guesthouse. On top of it, you are not stuck at one spot and you may move around to be where aurora is. Here is a picture of the car we had.
With a camper you may sleep wherever you desire. In some crowded places this comes very handy, as you may enjoy a popular hot pot early in the morning or late it the evening (as we did!). The same remark concerns waterfalls and geysers. Be aware that Iceland is veeery crowded in winter, as there are many tourists from Europe, as well as thousands of thousands of tourists from Asia. So be quick, because Iceland is on the way to becoming a victim of its own success.