Many of those who travel to Iceland have northern lights or auroras on their “must see” list. Some people do not know much about when to spot the lights and others believe that you have to travel far away from towns and plant yourself in the middle of nowhere in order to get a glimpse of the auroras. Well, that’s not quite true. Sighting depends on how bright the light displays are on a particular night. In fact, on a good night, you don’t even need to travel outside of Reykjavik, the coastal capital, to get a good viewing.
Experiencing the northern lights
The northern winter night skies can stage quite a light show. Sometimes it is just a hazy green cloud, gently swaying like a curtain in the wind. At other times, they move faster and brighter and their edges turn into a pinkish, magenta hue. Then, there are the rarer red and blue ones. Whichever kind you see, if you are lucky, you are in for a treat. They can form swirls, colourful lines or paint the whole sky.
Northern lights are caused by solar winds from the sun hitting the earth’s atmosphere. The reactions with the particles in the atmosphere are what give the northern lights their colours. The reason auroras are most visible in places near the north and south poles is due to their attraction to the poles magnetic forces, thus the names northern lights and southern lights or aurora borealis and aurora australis respectively.
Northern lights can appear at anytime during the day when the sky is dark enough for them to be visible and their visibility depends on how bright the light display is. Just like the weather forecast, nothing is definitive. Waiting out all night might not guarantee a single sighting. Think of auroras as very magnificent, majestic creatures; seeing them fills you with such a sense of awe and privilege but at the same time, they are extremely elusive. They can disappear as fast as they materialise or they can linger for hours. The intensity and brightness of the auroras can also change constantly.
If you plan on seeing northern lights, aim for the winter months. With only a few hours of sunlight, you are more likely to spot something. During summer, the sky is too bright as the sun barely goes down beyond the horizon. You wake up at 5am and it feels like 12pm.
With all of this in mind, how to best up your chances of being able to spot these galactic creatures from Reykjavik?
Viewing northern lights in Reykjavik
There are a number of good spots around town within walking distance.
For those who want to photograph the auroras, darker places always guarantee better sightings, especially since it is less likely that light pollution will affect your sighting. One of the more popular spots inside Reykjavik is the Seltjarnarnes lighthouse. The Seltjarnarnes lighthouse’s parking provides a great spot in town where you can gaze northward where there is not so much light pollution or westwards towards the Atlantic sea. The lighthouse is also a popular hangout spot for lovers, but since it is usually windy and cold, most people just spend time inside their cars.
The downside of this area is the amount of people driving up to there. If you want to try to photograph the auroras, lights from cars might be a bit of a nuisance. Southwest of the lighthouse there is the Seltjarnarnes Golf Club. There is more parking space and area to wander around, making it a bit easier to avoid light disturbances from cars.
There is also another accessible area close to downtown Reykjavik. Ægisgata, a road that runs along the sea south of Reykjavik airport and Vesturbær, the western area of Reykjavik, is a beautiful place for walks during the day and by night time, a great place to spot northern lights. There are some grassy areas and benches where you can wait for the lights.
However, if the northern lights activity is very high, you can view them from anywhere in Reykjavik, even from the comforts of your bedroom, provided that you are looking in the right direction. Lying in a soft bed, wrapped in a warm duvet and watching the sky lights up with auroras is a soothing and very peaceful feeling.
Another way of experiencing the northern lights is to dip yourself in a warm hot pool during a winter evening. Vesturbærjarlaug, an outdoors swimming pool facility in the west of Reykjavik opens until 10pm on Mondays to Thursdays, allowing for a unique northern lights experience. Imagine walking swiftly through frigid cold air and soaking yourself in a warm hot pool. Just remember that like any public swimming pool facilities in Iceland, visitors are required to shower and clean themselves properly before stepping into the waters. The requirement is also for you to not have any article of clothing on while showering and in some places, pool employees will keep an eye on guests to make sure they adhere to the rules. No cameras are allowed inside the pool area.
Planning your sightings
If you plan on waiting outside for northern lights, remember to always dress warm. It is also a good idea to have a thermo flask with you.
To help with planning, you should check online for information on the northern lights activities for that day. Icelandic Met Office provides you with weather forecast and northern lights forecast. Other websites such as the University of Alaska Fairbanks provides an hourly update on aurora forecasts. There is no set time when northern lights might appear, sometimes they appear as early as 6pm but later evenings and night time might make your sightings better due to darker skies.
If you plan to photograph northern lights, a tripod is a must. Your camera needs to be able to shoot on slow shutter speed. When setting up, make sure your tripod is standing on stable ground; strong winds can sometimes knock a tripod over and even in downtown Reykjavik, it can get pretty windy.
Don't burden yourself with expectations
Auroras are a natural phenomenon, which means despite forecasts and such, the chances of spotting them is not always certain. If you are extremely keen on sightings, it is best to stay in Iceland for at least a week or book a stay somewhere out in the countryside. Chances are even if there will be auroras, unless there are patches of clear sky, you won’t be able to see anything much, if at all. Bear in mind that there is a potential of spending a lot of time waiting outside in the cold for something to appear.
Despite all the possible forecasts that are available online, sighting is not certain and it all comes down to luck. If you do not see the lights on your first night, do not despair, you might have better luck the next day. Once the time comes when you get to marvel at the stunning displays in the sky, you will appreciate it all, the uncertainties and the waiting.
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