Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)

Photos by Bartolomeo.

An aurora is a natural phenomenon which occurs on cold, clear nights near Earth’s poles. In the north they are called Northern lights (Aurora borealis in Latin) Wikipedia has a very good entry on Auroras (which I really recommend reading), so I’m not going to get into the science and history of Auroras that much. Instead I’ll rather describe my own experience.

Our story with spotting the northern lights was unfortunately not that romantic. There is a tourism company in Reykjavik that specializes in Aurora-spotting. Our guides booked the tours and we set off on Friday night. We were a part of a large enough group to fill three buses. Each bus had its own local guide, who explain the ideal conditions for spotting Aurora borealis along with some basic scientific background.  We started driving out of the city, into the dark night. Even though each bus had its own guide we all ended up in the same parking spot near a well-lit church (the irony is that we drove out of the city to get away from light pollution). We went out in the wild for a while and watched the sky, but we didn’t see any lights. A beautiful shooting star appeared once, though. It was also really cold, so most people returned to the buses quite early. I stayed a while longer, but grew cold and tired eventually and returned to the bus as well.

Since we didn’t manage see the lights on Friday, the company gave us another complementary attempt on Sunday. We set out again and this time drove much farther (the ride took more than one hour). The guides seemed more coordinated and professional this time and that gave me a reassuring feeling. This time the buses had parked on a very dark part of the island and there were no lights present, except for occasional cars passing by. When we got out of the buses there was no sign of the phenomena. Most of the people stayed out a while but returned to the buses quite early and waited for something to happen inside. I also went inside because it was warmer, but couldn’t stand the nagging of some old ladies about how we got ripped off etc., so I went outside and hung out with the photographers, who were very enthusiastic.

We waited a while…. and a while longer. Then they appeared. The appearance was a bit anti-climatic, since the Aurora was covered by clouds. But it was there! At least we could say that we’ve seen it :) . Everybody came rushing out of the bus and stayed out for a few minutes, and after most of them returned. I didn’t return to the bus yet. And then it happened. The clouds cleared for a minute or two and the Aurora could be seen in all of its magnificence. For a while it looked like green lasers were shooting through the sky, and then it turned into a green fog. People were rushing out of the buses to see the lights, but most were too late, because the clouds came back as quickly as they moved before. Shortly after the clouds returned, we boarded the buses and returned to Reykjavik.

My tips for Northern light spotting:

  • Be patient.
  • Dress VERY warm (it gets really cold outside).
  • If possible, go in a small group.

Fun facts:

  • The camera “sees” Northern lights much better than the human eye. For example, these photos look great, but the scene was much darker and not so impressive most of the time.
  • The Japanese believe that babies conceived under the Northern lights are much smarter that the rest. Knowing this, you can imagine what happens…

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