The northern lights is something one will not forget, the colors, the dancing stripes or the bow stretching across the sky.
Northern lights Iceland
The northern lights or Aurora borealis is in our mind one of the most beautiful natural phenomena you can find. To see the lights dance in the dark winter sky for the first time is a sight one does not forget. The northern lights get their name from the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora and the Greek word for the wind, Boreas.
The northern lights belt in the north is about 300 to 600 km wide, over Iceland, north Norway, Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Iceland is considered to be one of the best places to search for the northern lights.
This magnificent phenomena can also be seen in the south part of the globe, the Southern lights. They are seldom seen over land, but have been seen in Australia, New Zealand and Argentina and of course in Antarctica.
The northern lights are totally unpredictable, even though there are websites that show us where it is most likely to see the lights, the activity and the cloud coverage. These websites are a good indicator but it is not possible to guarantee sightings.The activity is on a scale from 0 to 9. We have seen great lights when activity is 1 and it happens that we do not see the lights even though the activity is higher, even up to 4.
It was first in eighteen fifties that a Swiss astronomer discovered that a couple of days after he saw different colors in the sun, dots in the sun, there were northern lights on earth. That was when science discovered that the northern lights originate from the sun. The sun is constantly erupting materials into the sky, called solar wind and these particles travel at enormous speed into the sky. These particles reach earth in a couple of days and they penetrate through into our atmosphere here in the north and also in the south. These particles collide with particles in the atmosphere and as they are electrically charged, they ignite and form the northern lights here in the north and the southern lights in the south, Australis borealis. To form a decent northern lights the solar wind has to have at least 800 km/sec, so the speed is enormous.
The colors we usually see are the green color. Sometimes our eyes detect the lights as white if they are faint, but when you see the same lights in a photo, they are green. If the activity is strong we might see red, purple, pink, orange and even into blueish.
There are different types of the northern lights. One is called the “bow” and stretches like a bow across the sky. Another is called the “scarf”. It lights up the sky, does not move just stays put and the green color gets stronger and weaker. Yet another one is called the “stripes” which are most popular on postcards. They stand on edge and dance like curtains in a wind. In the top and bottom of the stripes the different colors can be seen like the red, purple and more colors.
We also get the question: Where is the best place to see the northern lights and the answer is simple. When staying in Iceland you only need darkness and clear or partly clear sky. Some days the best conditions could be in the south part of Iceland, even only in parts of the south like Reykjanes peninsula. Other days the best place could be in the north, east or west, depending upon where the sky is clear. Of course activity plays some rule in the hope to see the lights, but the main thing is to have clear sky, darkness and as little light pollution as possible.
In the old days, before scientists discovered that the northern lights originate from the sun there were all kinds of interesting beliefs about what caused the northern lights. Here in Iceland northern lights were believed to predict the weather. E.g. good lights late in the season indicated late spring, snowfall even into the summer.
In Norway they believed that the northern lights were reflection from the shields of the valkyries racing across the sky to Valhalla. Also that the lights were the bridge Bifrost to Valhalla, from the old Norse mythology. In Sweden they believed that the lights were reflection from a huge amount of herring in the north sea. In Greenland they believed that spirits of dead people were dancing and native tribes in Canada believed that their god was lighting a fire in the north to let his people know how happy he was with them.
Photographing northern lights is not very difficult, but to get very good quality photos there are some guidelines that are good to follow.
Usually we adjust the camera as follows to start with. Aperture as low as possible, 2,8 if possible. Shutter speed to a few seconds, maybe 5 seconds to begin with. ISO 800. Lens must not be on Auto. Depending on conditions, how clear the sky is, how strong the lights are etc. one can adjust all settings up and down to get the best photos. Photographing the northern lights demands patience, staying out in the cold for a long time sometimes, cold fingers, red nose, but one will be rewarded when the great northern lights photo is shot.
It is possible to go searching for the northern lights by yourself. Drive outside of Reykjavik or your town to a dark place and wait. Even though we recommend it, it is sometimes not even necessary to drive outside of town, just find a place a bit away from the most light pollution and if the lights are strong you can see them. Being alone is OK if you know where to go, but being with a guide is always an advantage. You will get all kinds of information, assistance with adjusting the camera and the guide will take you to the best and secure places. Also driving in Iceland during winter time can be tricky, especially in the darkness and outside of Reykjavik or the town you stay in.
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