The Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, are one of nature’s most beautiful gifts. Ribbons of green and streaks of purple and blue all moving around in an almost choreographed dance. I have seen many, many photographs, videos, and time-lapses of this phenomenon but had never seen bright and vivid lights for myself.
Living in Wisconsin at about 45 degrees north, I live enough to see a hint of the lights if there are strong enough, but it’s rare that they look like anything more than light pollution. This far south, we need a solar storm of 5 or higher on the K-Index. At Kp5 they would be visible on the horizon, looking like light pollution. I have not been good enough at planning to see any solar storm greater than Kp5.5-6 in Wisconsin. Though I have heard stories and seen spectacular images from Door County of the Northern Lights at much stronger Kp levels. I hope to catch a solar storm like that from the comforts of home!
Since I haven’t had the experience of a strong solar storm, I was particularly excited when my wife and I headed to Iceland in March 2018. Iceland is near the Arctic Circle and definitely far enough north to see a great show at much weaker Kp levels – as low as 1.5-2 on the Kp index. That is almost a daily occurrence. So as long as the clouds cooperated we were all but guaranteed a chance to see them.
Day 0: The Flight
My first glimpse of the Northern Lights was on our WOW Air flight to Iceland. We were on a red-eye from Chicago, well above the clouds. It was an uneventful flight until about 02:00 GMT. Most passengers were watching movies, playing games on their phone or tablets, or sleeping when the captain’s voice sounded loudly on the PA. DING! “Dear guests, we just want to let you know that on the right side of the aircraft you can see the beautiful aurora.” This got everyone’s attention. Suddenly the plane was giddy with “oohs” and “aahs.”
We were sitting on the correct side of the plane, but we were in the aisle and middle seats so we were trying to look out the window without invading our neighbor’s personal space too much. We couldn’t see anything though, at least I couldn’t from the aisle seat. However, our rowmate was gracious enough to get out of his seat so we could get right next to the window. What I saw was not very bright, but there was a well defined green ribbon in the sky just off our plane. It was quite the amazing view!
Pro Tip: If you are flying to Iceland, make sure you fly a redeye and book a seat on the right side of the plane. You would think the left side would make more sense since you’ll be looking north. However, Iceland is so far north that you often need to look south to see the Northern Lights, which I know seems strange.
Pro Tip 2: This is unrelated to this post, but a flight to Europe on an overnight flight is a great way to get accustomed to the time jump and avoid jet lag. You’ll leave the US in the late afternoon and arrive in Europe first thing in the morning (local time). If you are able to sleep on the plane or take only a short nap on your first day, you should get on the local sleep schedule fairly easily.
Day 1: Reykjavik
After a short nap, we set out exploring Iceland’s capital. After a full day of sightseeing we settled in our room at Hotel Cabin near downtown. Then at around 20:30 (8:30pm) my phone buzzed. One of the apps I use to track the Aurora Borealis sent me a notification – there would be viewing possibilities in the next hour. I checked the forecast and it showed possible Kp of 4-5. I went over to the window and took this picture:
It was only a test shot to see what was in the sky. You can clearly see green light in the sky. They were out! I walked over to show the camera to my wife, who was already preparing for bed, and we looked at each other and almost without words agreed we had to go out. Weather can be fickle, especially in Iceland, and you just never know if this is the only chance. Even though we were extremely tired, we decided, we are in Iceland and we have to take every chance to see the lights. Weather can be fickle (especially in Iceland) and this could be our only opportunity and if that was the case we would kick ourselves for being lazy.
We got our warm clothes back on and headed to the Sun Voyager sculpture. I figured it was close to the water and might be a good photo opportunity too. We arrived as the crowds started to gather. By this time you could easily see the green ribbons forming to the north and stretching overhead all the way to the south horizon. It was weak and light pollution didn’t help, but we could see them clearly. To the south they were strongest and the ribbons moved around quickly.
We stayed at the sculpture for 15 minutes or so. But the street lights did affect our viewing and and pictures I hoped to capture so my wife suggested we head to the Grótta Island Lighthouse that we we visited earlier in the day. It was a few minutes outside of the city and had far less light pollution. This turned out to be a good choice. The clouds were moving in fast but we could see the lights dancing around. 20 minutes after we arrived the clouds moved in and my Aurora apps confirmed the lights were dissipating.
Our first experience with the lights was pretty amazing. Even with clouds and light pollution it was captivating.
Day 2-6: Snæfellsnes and Sellfoss
It was a good thing we went out that night in Reykjavik because the next 5 nights were very cloudy and rainy. We didn’t even have the option to drive anywhere with clear skies because most of the island remained cloudy and any regions with breaks in the clouds would have meant 8+ hours of driving (one way). So we continued our Iceland adventure in the rain.
Day 7: Jökulsárlón
Luckily we had significant time on the island because, finally, seven days after Reykjavik the clouds parted. The weather forecast showed clear skies. If only the K-index would cooperate we would be in for a treat. It did, and we had our first true experience with the northern lights.
The K-index predicted a Kp of 4-5 so we headed out to the Glacier Lagoon at Jökulsárlónto to wait. We did not know how long we would have to wait but we wanted to be ready. After about 15 minutes of sitting in the car, I decided to take a walk along the lagoon. Others had also gathered here and we were all looking north with anticipation. Nothing yet. Then I remembered the lights we saw in Reykjavik and looked to the south. I saw something faint. Was it a cloud? I took another test shot and that confirmed what I had hoped for. The Auroras were appearing!
We headed across the road to Diamond Beach and there were very few people there. We went down to the waterline and the show started. Green ribbons everywhere! We looked to the north and saw them. We looked towards the south and they were even stronger. Reaching towards the horizon and folding in to itself. The eastern and western horizons were even lit up. Everywhere we looked were dancing ribbons of green and they kept getting brighter.
We were giddy. Another photographer couple were ‘woo-ing’ and we didn’t blame them. This was a storm of nearly Kp 5 and it was magnificent. I set up the camera for some shots and did my best to focus on my shots while being mesmerized.
There is nothing like watching a show of green ribbons dancing around you in every direction. Pictures are beautiful but do no justice to the experience.
Day 8: Vík
We hit a streak of luck. The next two nights while staying in Vík í Mýrdal we had two more nights of clear skies and more bright lights. We headed out to the countryside once again. Day 8 treated us to the strongest of all the Northern Lights we witnessed. At one point the K-index was nearing Kp 6. This was amazing! The ribbon was so bright it reflected off the calm lake and twisted so quickly around the sky. All I could do was stare up at it in amazement, not even capable of making a photograph.
Day 9: Vík
The final night in Iceland treated us to one more show. This night was not very strong and there were no brightly defined ribbons. However, the sky was definitely lit up so I took advantage of our last night to make a selfie of Sally and me under the lights, using our car headlights as a light source. Who wouldn’t want a Northern Lights selfie? 🙂
3 Amazing Nights of Northern Lights
At the end of the trip, we ended up with three amazing nights in a row of seeing the Northern Lights. That was more than I had ever hoped for. As I mentioned, pictures are amazing but they do no justice to watching them in person. There’s nothing quite like this experience. If you ever have a chance to be far enough north to see them, take that chance! You can regularly find flights to Iceland that are actually fairly reasonably priced. We flew nonstop from Chicago for about $200 per ticket on WOW Air. That’s with upgraded legroom too!