The Aurora Borealis, this amazing natural wonder of the world, a must on most people’s bucket lists, has been at the top of mine for a long time. I love the night sky, astronomy and searching for constellations, and I’ve been hunting the famously difficult aurora for years. Maybe it’s my Scandinavian heritage, but I am completely enthralled by their dancing beauty. Many a night I’ve spent staring out the window or wondering around in the dark in the hope of catching a glimpse.
My first encounter of the lights was on a flight back from Stockholm where I’d been on a solo long weekend. Close to midnight, sitting on the left of an under filled plane, next to an exasperated mother who was desperately trying to get her young children, seated beside me, to settle down. They eventually nodded off and not long after the pilots voice sounded over the intercom- ‘if you look out the windows to the right of the plane you might be lucky enough to see the northern lights.’ I looked to the empty spaces on the right side of the plane, then I looked at the two children sleeping that I’d have to wake up as I walked past them to get to the empty seats, then I looked at the tired mother, and I settled back to my book. It was in that moment I vowed I’d return to Northern Lights territory and I would see them one day!
Since then I’ve been back to Sweden. I’ve also been to Finland, the Scottish Highlands and Shetland, but nothing! (Although I did see this rather cool lunar rainbow!)
This year when we decided to go to Iceland, I was determined we would see them- and out of the 9 nights we were on the Island, we were fortunate enough to see them 3 times!
After posting some pictures on Facebook an ex colleague asked me for some advice for their upcoming trip to Iceland. I’ve learnt a lot over my years of searching and was happy to share what I knew, so I thought I’d share on a blog to. Therefore, please find below my 8 top tips for seeing the Aurora Borealis!
8 Top Tips:
1- You will only see them if there has been enough solar flare and that is that.
The Aurora Borealis happens when gases from the sun affect the Earths magnetic field. This is read by something called the KP Index, which rages from 0-9, 9 being the highest. We saw them at 2, but they can be underwhelming at this level. Intense colours happen at 3+, at 2 it is more likely to look like a moving white cloud with an occasional green tinge. There were times we weren’t sure if we were actually seeing the lights until we photographed the ‘cloud’ and it was green on a long exposure.
2- Face North
Use a compass and look North. We went in October and went searching between 9pm and midnight. 9/10 times we saw them they were in exactly the same position as the plough constellation, which at that time of year, at that time of night is north in the sky.
3- Avoid Light Pollution.
It has to be dark, that’s why you can only see them in the winter months. The countries where the Aurora is visible have nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer. The lighter the sky, the less chance you have of seeing the Northern Lights. It is hard to see the Aurora in Reykjavík due to the artificial light. We had a north facing balcony but unfortunately it faced the flagship Icewear store which is lit up like a Christmas tree. There is a light house (Grótta Island), at Reykjavík people recommend as a place to go. It’s ok, we saw them there, but it is heaving with people driving about and the constant flow of headlights is really annoying. Find somewhere further out if you can.
4- Stay Warm
Wrap up warm, take a drink, patience is key, you can easily be sat around for a few hours.
5- Don’t stay in one place
The first night we saw them we tied our hunt with a trip to fill the car with diesel before a long drive the next day. We parked up and waited, and waited, but it wasn’t happening. We got our diesel, parked somewhere else and continued to wait, then after 45 minutes there we went somewhere else and continued to wait, it was this location that we saw them. That’s not forgetting watching out at the hotel beforehand as well. Patience is a virtue, but it also pays to move about if it’s not happening where you are.
6- Utilise Modern Technology
I recommend the following apps: NorthernLights is a camera app that allows you to take long exposure pics on your phone, take a tripod for the best pics as the phone needs to be really still. You can get a tripod for a mobile from Poundland. Aurora has the best forecast and LiveAuroraNetwork has webcams in Norway and Iceland that you can look at to find activity in an area, it will also send you an alert if they’re visible. All are available from the App Store. (For Apple definitely, I am unsure about other phone models). If you do have the ability to move about to different locations as I suggest above, the apps will help you to find the best place to go. There are also some Facebook groups where people post about activity live but I personally didn’t find them useful.
7- Avoid Clouds
Cloud cover and a low forecast also makes it almost impossible to see them, and a full moon with a low forecast is also annoying, although still possible if you’re lucky. .
8- Keep your phone charged!
If you are going to use your phone like I did for GPS, aurora location alerts, Aurora forecasts and also for taking photos, you want to make sure your battery is full!
In summary, check your KP forecast, find a clear, dark sky and look north, if something is moving in the sky- that could be the Aurora!