Photo Diary: Iceland and the Northern Lights.

Cloudy skies and stormy seas. We were rather depressed by the gloomy weather. Even with the strongest Northern Lights, nothing could be seen beyond the dense clouds. Hopes were low.
And the skies began to clear, the moon appeared and so did scattered stars.

The stars look like flecks of dust on my computer screen. Anyhow after waiting for an hour or so with bitter wind in our faces and no signs of activity, we heard a guide say; “And to this side, we may begin to see something!”

And so we did.

This green band of light only appeared on our camera screens; it looked like an ordinary grey cloud to the human eye. The guide was able to discern it because of its experience. The green band was still, and after the initial excitement of seeing some activity after an hour of staring up at clouds, we were getting increasingly disappointed. Some of the other people on the tour were exclaiming that they “want to see something with my own eyes, not through some tiny piece of technology.” My brother was commenting that “at least we saw something, and it was not a wasted trip.” when someone shouted…

“HERE IT COMES!”

Words can’t describe the actual emotions and feelings I felt when the lights started unfurling across the skies. You could literally see the spread from the farthest point in the horizon, closer and closer to you, across the dark night, in different waves and tandems. Across the field, everyone had their cameras out, their hands braving the freeze, their eyes fixated upon the one of nature’s most amazing phenomenons happening right in front of them. I was so overwhelmed I started exclaiming to my brother in garbled words how beautiful it is, and my eyes started to well up with tears. Couples all around us were holding hands or hugging, and I couldn’t help wishing he was there to witness it all with me.

Some things you should know about the Northern Lights before preparing a trip;

1) What are the Northern Lights?

You can watch this video for an animated explanation! Basically, an aurora starts at the center of the solar system.  The sun is constantly blowing out a stream of electrons and protons, called the Solar Wind.  Those particles get near earth and hit its magnetic field. The particles that hit that magnetic field want to ‘slide down’ the field to the poles, eventually hitting the earth’s atmosphere, and they may be trapped in the Van Allen belts. When they hit the air, these fast-moving particles knock loose electrons from atoms in the atmosphere.  After a time the free electrons get back to atoms, and the atoms emit light.  When this happens to many atoms, you get the aurora.

2) Why are there different colors seen?

The most common color, a pale green, arises when electrons collide with oxygen atoms below an altitude of 400 km.  More elevated encounters of electrons with oxygen may also yield a red glow.  Nitrogen molecules sometimes produce red light, but usually with less intensity. Charged nitrogen molecules can emit deep violet light, which is difficult to see. If you see orange light, it is usually not from the aurora but from nearby towns and settlements.

3) What are the chances of seeing the Northern Lights?

You need a combination of different factors in order to be able to have a clear view of the aurora borealis. Firstly, you must have optimal weather conditions, with clear skies and low moon light. Secondly, you must be in a dark location, most likely far away from any area that emits light, such as cities, towns or settlements. We headed to the Southern Shores of Iceland, about half an hour drive from Reykjavik where we stay, where it was predicted to have clear skies later in the night and was enough distance not to have any extra illumination. Thirdly, you must have the occurrence of the aurora in the first place. On a scale of 0 to 10, the aurora was a 1 (weak) that night. You can check the predictions online.

However, sometimes it really depends on your luck. Despite having an aurora rating of 1 that night, we were very lucky to see multiple bursts of the Northern Lights across various parts of the skies. Our guide tells us that some groups head out and only manage to see the solitary immobile band of light that we first saw, with no additional activity, which is rather boring and quite a waste of time out in the cold. Of the four nights that we stayed in Iceland, only the night that we went had a successful sighting of the aurora, all other nights were cancelled due to bad weather. However, it is rather difficult to gauge what the weather would be like when you book your tour, because if you book too close to the dates, chances are the prices would spike. So a great part of this lies in fate and luck.

4) How should I prepare for the Northern Lights?

Attire – Definitely something wind proof. As you would be out in the open for quite a number of hours, the winds would be relentless and bitterly cold. Invest in a good windproof down jacket and pants, and you should be good to go. Scarves, earmuffs and hats are advisable as your face would constantly be exposed to the wind. Waterproof shoes are advised as well, if you are trudging through snowy/icy plains. Multiple layers of socks are a must; my toes were the first to freeze and towards the end of the tour, became almost unbearably numb and painful. Once your feet start to freeze, your entire body would be affected by the cold. Bring two pairs of gloves, one thick lined waterproof and windproof one, and another thinner pair that you can wear under. Theory is that with the thick gloves, you can’t manage your camera equipment properly, and would need to remove them. But your hands would freeze if they were completely unprotected, so wear a thinner cotton/wool one so that you can still manage your camera at the same time.

Equipment – If you have a DSLR, good for you! If you have a digital camera like me, it isn’t that bad. Switch your camera to manual settings, and adjust the ISO to around 800. Under ‘Auto’, the sky and surrounding clouds would appear overly exposed and undermine the colors of the Northern Lights. 800 would do just fine. If you have a tripod, bring it along! It would save you the trouble of trying to steady the camera with your shivering hands, and holding it up to the sky throughout the night.

Hope that helped! It was a really amazing experience, and worth every single minute in that windy cold.

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