Seeing the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is something that I see on every bucket list I’ve seen and rightfully so, it is one of the most impressive displays in nature. Unfortunately though for every appearance on a bucket list there is a tale of how people have been disappointed by cloudy skies or lack of activity. Part of the appeal is the anticipation of whether tonight will be your lucky night and learning the skills required to predict where and when you can see a display is half the fun. There is a whole industry built on chauffeuring you around to get the best view whether by foot, boat or coach. However these options can be costly and add to the disappointment if you don’t get to see them first time round but there are things you can do to maximize the chances of seeing them without having to spend the night on a crowded coach tour.
With the advancement in technology and the internet the same tools that the tour guides use to predict a display are freely available to everyone; all they take to master is a little practice. Let’s be clear though even with all the tools, apps and luck in the world you are not guaranteed to see a display due to the unpredictable nature of the phenomenon but there are ways to stack the deck in your favour.
Firstly know what you’re looking at…
The Aurora appears in the form of a mainly green but also blue, yellow and violet wave that swirls across the night sky which is in fact countless collisions between electrically charged particles and the gas participles in earth’s atmosphere. The charged particles have been ejected from the sun at 145km/s and after 12 days are funnelled into the atmosphere by the earth’s magnetic field creating a doughnut shape ring around the north and south poles where the displays can be seen.
For a display to be seen you need to consider three main factors…
1. Dark skies equal cold nights
Dark skies are a must to see a display and because of this the time of year you visit Iceland is vital. The official Aurora season in Iceland is from October to March but there is some flexibility as with any type of seasonal event but it is worth noting you will not be able to see a display in the summer months due to the long summer days and midnight sun.
During the season however getting away from heavily built up areas is a must as it will reduce the light population that can diminish the intensity of a display, so pack up the car and get out of the towns and cities. Remember though in Iceland they have huge greenhouses that shine like light beacons into the sky so make sure you don’t get caught out.
2. Cloud cover
Clear skies play a key role in increasing your chances of seeing a display as heavy cloud cover will block your view into the upper atmosphere. So pay close attention to which areas are forecast to get the least amount of cloud cover and plan your day around that as you might have to travel a fair distance.
3. Aurora activity level
The main factor people don’t often realize is that the aurora fluctuates in its activity level on a daily basis, think of it like the weather. Some evening’s activity levels will be high but others there could be nothing. This is due to the doughnut ring I mentioned earlier where the aurora is visible moves depending on its intensity and time of year, so if you’re not in that particular area you will be out of luck.
Fortunately there are various websites and apps (Aurora Watch UK and Aurora Alerts Northern Lights) that combine the cloud coverage and aurora activity allowing you to plan when and where will be the best location to set up camp for the night. For Iceland there is this link (http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/) which forecasts the cloud coverage and activity level 5 days in advance which we used every night during our visit. To give you a guide on what to expect from the different activity levels we saw mild activity on a level 2 (which left us a little disappointed) and short durations of high activity on a level 4 which resulted in cheering and whooping from all the groups of people around us.
Most important of all is to be flexible as the weather and activity levels can change at less than half a day’s notice, so be prepared to change your day’s itinerary if a certain region has low cloud cover during a sudden spike in activity levels. It will be worth it!