The Northern Lights have been on my wishlist for a long time. Most importantly to see it for real and of course to shoot some decent photographs of the phenomenon. It’s caused by material that is sent to us by the sun. These charged particles are diverted by the earths magnetic field and collide above both of the poles with our atmosphere. That energy is converted into light, the same way as a tube lighting does. Oxygen primarily emits green light and nitrogen blue, while both can emit red light as well.
The sun has an 11-year cycle of its activity. This year there is a peak. The more activity on the sun, the greater the chance on Northern Lights. According to NASA the real peak should have been during this winter, but now they think it will be next autumn.
The original plan was to go to Iceland already in december, before I found out that the Northern Lights are especially visible in september/october and in march/april. I didn’t investigate the reason so far, but I expect it has something to do with the angle of the Earths axis in relation to the sun. Besides that, it would have been very close to the previous trip to Australia. So, I thought better to postpone: last week of march + first week of april. Then I would have one week for the north and one week for the south.
Two weeks ago, I dived in again and read that march is actually the best month for Iceland, because then there is still some snow which is good for photographs. Additionally there has to be a minimum of moonlight to be able to see the Northern Lights well, something I hadn’t realized before. After a quick lookup I found out that there is little moonlight here from yesterday until the end of next week.
The weather forecast wasn’t good at all, but changed every day for the better and last week everything looked good, a couple of sunny days. Yesterday the forecast turned bad. Apparently these forecasts are not that reliable so I decided to just go.
Whether there are Northern Lights to see, depends on the activity of the sun about 8 minutes ago. You can only see it in the dark, but it does occur all year round. It can be a show of several hours but it can be limited to a few seconds or minutes as well. So the best thing to do is to watch the skies for the whole evening, with your finger on the trigger, ready to shoot and that while being in the freezing cold with a nice wind blowing (-;
By going around the maximum of the solar cyle, chances of actually seeing one increase dramatically. The chance on really spectacular light is better as well. Besides that, the sky has to be partly or completely free of clouds, cold and clear (i.e. low humidity) and little moonlight. These are a lot of variables that all have to fit to be picture perfect. I guess I’ll have to schedule a couple of these trips to return home with really beautiful photographs, unless I’m lucky of course.
Back to today. This afternoon I am flying to Iceland and have a little moment of stress in the airplane. I’m sitting at the last row in the back and all handluggage cupboards of the last four rows are full with junk and cannot be used. I quickly stuff my bag in a cupboard a couple of rows to the front. Alternatively it would have to go in the cargo bay, in particular when they feel how heavy it really is and that is a thing I want to prevent at all cost. Luckily it all ends well.
I have been sleeping almost for the whole flight and am waking up when the landing is announced. The cloud cover is very low and the moment we finally see something, we’re flying close to the water, with white foam on the waves. Altitude is difficult to estimate and I guess it’s around 500 meters, but I don’t see a horizon. Weird. But then I notice that we are flying a really steep turn of about 45 degrees, maybe even 60. Haven’t felt this coming.
The airplane shakes violently and at some parts of the turn the engines run on full power. Sounds quite serious. The turn keeps going and going until the airplane comes out of it only to turn again completely the other way. It’s a kind of wild fairground attraction, quite funny, as long as we keep being safe of course. I see a lot of scared and tense faces around me. Somewhat later the landing follows in very rough weather. These guys really know what they are doing.
Still in the airplane I see my suitcase being unloaded and when I arrive at the conveyor belt 5 minutes later, it just arrives too and I can leave immediately. The car is arranged quickly as well.
First let’s find a supermarket, because these open here at 10:00 in the morning and I don’t want to wait for that. I find one quickly, so everything is ok concerning food and drinks. Outside it’s about 2-3 degrees Celsius, so the car doubles as a refrigerator. Handy!
I don’t have a map of Keflavik and the GPS has no details either. Yesterday I had a look on a map so I know where the hotel is roughly and I find it quickly.
In the hotel I fetch my swimming trousers from the suitcase and drive to the Blue Lagoon play in the water.
The weather is really bad. It almost rains horizontally and it’s difficult to keep the car straight. I left the photo equipment in the hotel. It all looks reliable so it just has to be that way, I guess.
The Blue Lagoon is only 20 kilometers away. When I’m almost there, the sulfuric fumes enter the car. It smells a bit like eggs, not even rotten ones, but just cooked (of about a day old).
After having changed I have to go out. The door is very difficult to open because of the hard wind. But Dear Lord, this is really cold! Quickly enter the warm water, which is not even as hot as I remember. The water is also quite rough and it looks more like a sea than a swimmingpool. It’s completely impossible to look in the direction, the wind is coming from. So many water droplets are being swept over the water that you can’t see anything.
With a smooth back stroke I paddle to the other side. Then it comes to mind that I didn’t put all my clothes consciously in the locker. I was to busy figuring out how these lockers-with-automatic-bracelet-locking actually work. Better have a check then. I wouldn’t like to lose my passport and passes. Especially not because of something stupid like this.
This time I have to run the part through the hard wind, while being wet. This is really, inhumanely cold, brrrrrr.
After all, I did put everything in the locker, but as a bonus I find another way to get outside via the water. That is a lot better.
I swim back to the other side to find protection against the wind. Problem is that your head cools down very quickly as it is exposed to the cold wind. The water is salty, something I did not remember. There is a lot of sediment, a kind of gray clay that you can put on your face. At some spots you can stick your arm in for about half a meter. A bit further I find a sheltered spot where also hot water emerges from the bottom. This is a really good spot. Nicely warm and not in the wind.
Several others have come to the same idea and after a while I have a talk with a women lying next to me in the water. Sieve is her name and she comes from Bergen in Norway. No clue whether you write her name that way, but that’s the way she pronounces it, with a long ’i’. She’s here for a congress on pedagogy and should have arrived yesterday, but her flight was cancelled due to the weather.
After being in the water for almost two hours, I call it quits. Almost een hour longer than previous times.
Back in the hotel I immediately go to the restaurant. I haven’t eaten and didn’t drink anymore since this morning and can eat a horse. Well that’s exactly what is brought: a huge hamburger of the house. What a giant thing! Has about a pound of meat on it. Will be quite a job to eat all that. In the end I don’t succeed completely, but I won’t be hungry tomorrow, I guess.
Not quite sure what I’m going to do tomorrow. Breakfast is already at 05:00, so that’s handy. Yesterday the weather forecast for the next four days was really bad for this area: storm, rain and low hanging clouds. That just sucks.
For the days after that, the forecast is sunny. Akureyri in the north should also be sunny in the next few days. Distance is only 450 kilometers. The only question is whether the road to it is passable. If the weather is sunny the next few days overthere, I really should think about going there. I lose two days on driving there and back, but I win two days and three nights I can photograph. Godafoss and Dettifoss will definitely come into view.
Tonight it looks like the weather will be bad here tomorrow but better after that. As an alternative for doing nothing for a day, I could as well drive north. I haven’t decided yet and will have another look tomorrow morning at both the weather forecast and the road conditions and then decide what to do. If it ends into nothing halfway I can always turn around and even then the day will have been filled with activities (-;
Maps, Charts & Downloads
GPS Map with color coded altitude information
Color coded distance/altitude chart
Download the original gpx file here.