This March, we made our way to Iceland once again and were “lucky” enough to experience dancing auroras on 11 of the 15 nights we spent on the island. Whether that’s a new personal record or not, we don’t know (they never kept that accurate a record ), but this time it all happened despite minimal prospects for a great aurora and despite supposed “calm conditions” in the atmosphere. A solar storm of several days (with kp=6) happened just before our arrival and hardly we were at home, there was the next mega storm. So “luck” is a bit relative, and that’s why this word is already in quotation marks in the first sentence. And this time, at the end of the trip, we wondered if we really needed it? Also the question “Where and when can I observe auroras in Iceland??” we would answer a little bit different than before.
Some years ago I already wrote a quite detailed blog about “photographing auroras” (and updated it several times in the meantime). Therefore we do not want to repeat everything here, but rather try to give a compact overview with all kinds of “tips&” To give “tricks” for people who absolutely want to see auroras during their vacation. And then finally of course also more near on the newer experiences and realizations, which were confirmed to us then on the last travel day by a coworker of the Aurora museum in Reykjavik so also. You never stop learning, even after the umpteenth aurora tour. And maybe the summary here will help one or the other of you.
This blog is primarily about Iceland, but the observing itself is not very different in other regions near the Arctic Circle, so that what has been written here can just as well be transferred to Norway, Finland, Sweden or Alaska. Since it never really gets dark in the far north during the summer, the first tip will hardly surprise anyone who has already dealt with the topic of “auroras”:
THE RIGHT SEASON
It has to be really dark at night, so it is best to fly to Iceland between September and March. Most promising due to a particularly favorable alignment of the earth’s axis are the weeks directly before and after the equinox, which always falls on the 19th day of September., 20. or 21. March resp. the 22., 23. or 24. September falls.
To e.g. to experience an aurora in the only 4 hours long nights in mid-April or mid-August, you need a lot of luck. However, this happened to a friend of ours last year (> Northern lights in summer). Update: And also at the end of August/beginning of September 2017 it was again similarly brilliant, friends of us had really great auroras in Iceland and that immediately several times!
In the second place now follows not – as perhaps expected – the aurora forecast but the weather forecast! The luminous phenomena take place far above the cloud cover at an altitude of about 100-400 km, so that the most important prerequisite for a successful auroral hunt is a cloudless night sky!
If possible only stay overnight where a starry night is announced. It is said (not so seldom…) that the two Icelandic weather services (vedur. is and belgingur.is) regarding cloud coverage (Icelandic “skýjahula”) contradict each other. But in the areas where both agree, it is worth going there.
Fixed booked accomodations are therefore extremely counterproductive, by all means choose only short term cancellable accomodations. Unfortunately we had to cancel almost everything this time due to the weather and booked our accommodations quite spontaneously – mostly the evening before or on the day itself. In the summer it is hardly possible in Iceland, but now in March fortunately still possible.
By the way, it should be as windless as possible, because the “windchill” factor should not be underestimated. In a real storm nobody likes to spend the night outside, and even wind speeds of 8-10 m/s are extremely uncomfortable at temperatures around freezing point! And the tripod can be as stable as you like, from a certain wind strength on you can forget about photographing/filming completely. You can find all information about this on the website of the two Icelandic weather services mentioned above.
PROBE PHOTOS& Webcams
But a cloudless sky and looking out of the room window every now and then is still not enough. On the one hand the surroundings of the hotel are unfortunately often too bright, also cell phone displays or similar things make it difficult to see auroras. The eye has to adapt to the darkness first! And even if it is pitch dark, we may not have a chance to detect a faint aurora with our eyes (see also “How does the human eye perceive auroras??”).
You can only really rely on a camera with which you take test photos from time to time in the direction of the north. To be on the safe side, you should also hold it to the west and east from time to time, because an arc can also form from there.
Update 2020: In the meantime some webcams in Iceland have been positioned in a way that you can see auroras on them at night. A great help, but they are not always on. All details about this can be found in this blog> Auroras in Iceland – Aurora Live Webcams.
THE AURORA FORECAST
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on the aurora forecasts:
The probability to observe an aurora is given as Kp-index between 0 (minimum) and 9 (extremely strong auroras reaching far into southern latitudes). You can find this predicted “index” (often a bit of “coffee guesswork”…) on the NOAA site or at the Geophysical Institute in Alaska, also vedur.is and various apps offer the same service. Additionally you should look where the auroral oval is located. UT= Universal Time is Greenwich- resp. Iceland Time.
Everything at a glance shows this page. There you can find – for people who want to deal a little bit deeper with the matter – also infos about the sunspots and coronal holes currently facing the earth. These two phenomena on the sun often cause enormous streams of charged particles to be hurled into space, and when they arrive in the earth’s atmosphere they can cause strong auroras by interacting with molecules/atoms. A sog. G1 storm usually ignites a real firework in the night sky.
2-4 days sun “storms” need to reach earth, only in exceptional cases less than 24 hours. Satellites positioned in space measure the incoming particle streams and then sound the alarm. If all parameters fit together, we usually get ca. one hour before also a reasonably reliable prediction, beyond “coffee guessing. And the chances to see an especially great light ballet are pretty good then. More to this whole topic I have already written here in the blog under “Aurora forecasts for advanced”.
Whereby to see there is actually almost always something! Because the sun “wind” blows continuously in the direction of the earth, so that in Iceland an immobile green arc on the northern horizon is not rare. Sometimes, however, it is so faint or so deep that you don’t notice it. Much more interesting are the dynamic phenomena, d.h., when suddenly, without any warning, single bands detach themselves from this arc and start to move slowly across the sky. Often their “urge to move” increases until they waft over the whole firmament, dance and finally fall from the zenith flower-like or in form of “circus tents. But as said: “It can”, but the bow “must” not always behave like this.
The Kp-index is – as already mentioned above – often to be taken with caution. If a kp=0 is predicted in the evening, it does not mean that nothing will happen during the night. On the contrary, some of our most beautiful and longest aurora shows have occurred exactly then! And in Iceland you do not need too high Kp values for great arcs and colors in the sky. An employee at the Aurora Museum in Reykjavik also confirmed our experience: Even a kp=1 can be sufficient on the whole island! But we have dedicated a more detailed blog with many example photos to this topic> Iceland – Which Kp-Index is needed for beautiful auroras?
Eyes open and THROUGH(Hold)..
How and when exactly auroras appear, you never know. They can start dancing right after sunset (experienced several times this March)!), so you can hardly see them because it’s still so bright (see photo of Godafoss below). But the green glow can just as well appear at 2 o’clock in the morning. This has also been the case several times. Therefore follows here immediately tip #5:
In no case one should go to bed too early and especially not if an increased aurora probability is predicted. Some patience is required for aurora watching and stamina is needed… Because the green luminaries are quite often a bit “moody”. At first they dance for a few minutes, then they take an endless break and come back to life hours later.
Also the light shows are always quite different in length. Especially if the Kp-index is rather low, it can happen that after a short time it’s already over again and that for the whole night.
stay outside! If you really don’t want to miss anything, don’t go out to eat after sunset and don’t linger in your room either. It is best to wait outside of cities and far away from any “light pollution” in a dark car (outside it is usually too cold for that at this time of the year…).
Of course you can also use the “wake up call” service that many hotels in Iceland offer. Here you should be aware that you are really only awakened when the lights dance colorfully and really well visible to the eye in the sky. For people who want to “see” and “experience” the aurora in the first place, this is perfect. One should be there however only as fast as possible then also in the open air! For photographers, however, the whole thing is not necessarily ideal, because a camera can capture even the faintest glow, so that even an aurora that appears to our eyes only like boring “gray clouds” can look great in photos!
H-Graph at the magnetometer (The ACTUAL STATE)
A little insider tip or. a great help even are the magnetometer data, which are provided by the measuring station Leirvogur near the capital Reykjavik:
On this page you don’t see forecasts but the actual state, which is updated every 10 minutes. Interesting for aurora observers is the middle graph (H). If there the curve suddenly drops down, then something is going on in the sky. The steeper and the farther down it goes, the bigger the fireworks.
The experience shows that if after sunset the H-graph “fidgets” a little bit and then also slowly starts to rise, it is not a bad idea to already get into position. Who wants to take pictures should be in the immediate vicinity of the desired photo motif. With a little bit of luck you don’t have to wait long at all! And if you are unlucky, the show is very short and if you waste time, you might miss it! All happened to us too..
Here in this night (report) e.g. was quite busy with a Kp index of 5.33 after midnight:
If this H-graph consists over a longer period of time only of a dead straight line, you can safely go to sleep. At least that’s what we thought in the past resp. still before our last trip. And for stronger solar winds that is also true! However, for times when only minimal or low auroral activity is recorded, even this ACTUAL condition cannot be 100% relied on. Best example are the two photos below, taken this March in nights with low Kp-index (“only” 1.33) and where the H-graph did not move at all:
(an hour-long, dreamlike
Show with bright lights,
the one just after sunset
have started to dance;
nevertheless however a calm
H-graph, since “only” kp=1.33)
(again “only” kp=1,33,
but here one recognizes with the
H-Graph at least clear
a jag at 21:30,
the lights have nevertheless
still danced at 0 o’clock)
What is the role of the moon?
The role of the moon is also emphasized and the recommendation is made to plan an aurora tour only at new moon. But we would never sign this, on the contrary!
We can say from our own experience that by far the most beautiful experiences were those where the moon was shining. We like best the phase between 1/4 and half moon or vice versa. I haven’t found any scientific reports on the subject and also in the Aurora Museum in Reykjavik they couldn’t give us any information, but we always had the impression that the moon is decisive for how colorful the aurora is perceived with the eyes!
At new moon or in nights, where the moon rose only in the early morning hours, we saw mostly only “gray clouds” in the sky – if at all! And the auroras always looked a bit paler and are only faintly green or yellowish even during stronger storms. It becomes then amazingly bright, the birds start to twitter and to fly, which is also impressive, no question, but the completely large WOW effect remained with us without moon nevertheless always from. Even a corona (flower-like explosion at the zenith) looked a bit more “muddy” then and could not be compared with those that fell down on us in the moonlight as green-pink curtains. This “experience” is naturally something very subjective and above all everyone sees in the darkness completely differently. While some can already recognize colors, for others still “all cats are gray”.
But in our opinion the moon also plays a very important role in photography and we would not like to miss it in any case. More about this and about the topic “new moon” you can find here.
Pay attention to the phases of the moon and its rising and setting times! Also its position in the sky is not completely indifferent, because if a full moon stands far in the northeast/northwest it can be very disturbing during the observation (The Photographer Ephemeris shows you that e.g. quite well). Our eyes are blinded by the brightness, so that we can perceive the aurora only badly. This is especially true for fainter lights. During bigger sun storms you don’t have to worry, there it is so bright anyway, that even a full moon plays only a minor role.
The most beautiful and best places in Iceland
Then of course the question arises, where is the best place to be, when a proper solar storm is announced and it should be cloudless and windless on the whole island (this is then a real jackpot! ).
Among the (in our opinion) most beautiful places on Iceland to observe and photograph auroras:
- the glacier lagoon Jokulsarlon and the adjacent iceberg beach (even if there are always crowds of people), ice and colorful lights just go best together
- a bit further east the reflecting playa below the Vestrahorn mountains near Stokknes
- the area around Lake Myvatn (there it is a bit quieter in winter, clearly less tourists than on the south coast or in Snaefellsnes)
- the lagoon at the Kirkjufell waterfall, there you are guaranteed not to stand around alone either, but the “magic hat” mountain is always a great sight nevertheless
- Thingvellir, when it is nicely covered with snow
- Cap Dyrholaey near Vik y Myrdal (there is still some “light pollution” but the view to the north with the lights reflected in the lagoon is still not bad)
- the “petrified troll” Hvitserkur in the northwest of Iceland, but only when the aurora arcs dance in the east/northeast
- or just everywhere away from the cities, where a small river flows through the snowy landscape or a cascade falls over the rocks
The duration of the trip
Also one should think about the travel time. If you only plan a long weekend trip to Reykjavik, you will have much worse chances. Even a stay of one week significantly increases the chances that the weather and the lights will be suitable. With two weeks, you can go back and forth on the island as you like or as you like. also always there, where Petrus directs you..
This March we are in the two weeks due to weather 3x the ring road at the East Fjords along and everything only for two dreamlike nights at the glacier lagoon Jokulsarlon resp. in Stokksnes near Hofn. And shortly before the journey home we went a second time up to Snaefellsnes. And we didn’t regret a single one of the long drives.
The spontaneous trip
But we don’t want to talk/write about short trips in general here. For this there were recently but some too good counterexamples!
The ultimate tip for short trips are NOAA’s long-term forecasts (> 27-Day Outlook). Active regions can be seen after a full solar revolution (ca. 27 days) send again a solar storm in the direction of earth. Every Monday the forecast is updated by NOAA, the closer the date with the predicted high Kp-values, the more likely you are to be “lucky”. If you can arrange your travel days spontaneously, you have a good chance to experience a really great solar storm in Iceland.
A friend of us has practiced exactly that during this winter 2x. I had already dedicated a longer blog to his first experiences and the second time it worked out with the lights again, only the weather did not play along so well. Unfortunately you always have to expect something like this in Iceland. Impassable roads and heavy storms are not uncommon there in the wintertime!
THE SUN ACTIVITY
What one may not conceal with all this however, is the sun activity. This reaches its peak on average every 11 years (last 2013), so unfortunately our central star will send less and less solar storms towards Earth during the coming years. NOAA has a nice overview with the yearly number of sunspots. The probability to observe auroras will therefore probably reach its minimum in 2019/2020 and then only slowly increase again until the next peak, the expected SolarMax in 2025.
If you want to see auroras, you should hurry up at the moment!
All kinds of mini-tips:
Further tips, which should be however actually natural:
- Do not forget your flashlight
- warm clothes, decent shoes, headgear and gloves
- if necessary. Pocket warmer
- warm drink in a thermos can be quite pleasant
- and for all those who want to take pictures: a ready to use, fix& ready adjusted camera, which you can operate “blind” in the darkness! Everything else about this is in my blog about photographing auroras.
Finally, a few anecdotes on the subject:
What is it like when you see auroras for the first time??
We can still remember very well our very first aurora night and this incredible feeling. If you are lucky enough to see strong lights the first time, it is overwhelming and just indescribable! Words fail you, your head is dizzy with euphoria and everything that happens around you is almost like in one of those old black-and-white movies that are unwound too fast, where people are just whirring back and forth frantically. At the hotel Hofdabrekka in Vik I once watched from the room window how a married couple rushed out to the parking lot, started the car, put it in the wrong gear and crashed backwards into the lamppost at full throttle, which from then on was stuck rather crookedly in the ground… He got out, she got out, both of them whirled around in the air with their arms, put their hands together over their heads, everything like in fast forward mode. And just as quickly was then also the right gear found and they made themselves from the Acker.
In Iceland there was also an article in the newspaper with the headline “Driving under the influence of Aurora”. Unfortunately, a not so harmless topic, because when the lights dance in the sky, even the best driver quickly becomes “Hans Guck-in-die-Luft”… And not only that! Also the mind stops then with some completely… Then suddenly vehicles stand unlighted in the middle of the street or the like. You should be prepared for anything!
Steffen and I got to experience the green glow for the first time at Hvitserkur at blue hour. We were about to devour our home-cooked portion of spaghetti when I took a quick peek outside the door and immediately started yelling: Aurora alarm! The following scenes were similar to those of the couple in Vik, except that I was so excited that I knocked over my tripod. It’s a wonder that the hard impact on the pebble beach didn’t have any consequences other than a slightly damaged filter thread on my wide-angle lens..
But it is always a pleasure to see how people react who have never seen auroras before. Suddenly there is a loud “squealing” in the hot tub and even the yelling of the Chinese woman right next to me at Jokulsarlon was just adorable when the sky looked like the photo on the right.
And I still catch myself doing it from time to time… At the beginning of March, only a few hours after our arrival, I was standing all alone on a snowfield below the volcano Snæfell , which according to Jules Verne should actually provide access to the “center of the earth. For us (Steffen was standing a bit further away at a small lake) the gate to the underworld didn’t open there, but the whole sky seemed to fall down on us – auroras almost close enough to touch and I could hardly stop myself because of my euphoria. Similarly a few hours later in Arnarstapi when the whole firmament above the little house at the harbor was covered by green-red swirls (see photo above right). Such experiences are absolutely UNFORGETTABLE!
And interestingly enough, this enthusiasm does not really decrease even after the umpteenth aurora. You can get really ADDICTIVE for these celestial phenomena. And so it happened that our first “just to see how polar lights look like” trip was followed by numerous others and we will also end this blog with a ” to be continued “..
We hope that these “Tips& Tricks” also help a bit.
Good luck and many great experiences.