Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Chasing the Northern Lights - Iceland's Celestial Treasure

"Far in the land of icetop mountains, far on the other side
pictures are appearing so serenely into my mind
Far in the land of meadows of fire, deep in forgotten life
memories are drifting away so silently from light"

"Along his quest for solitude,
a wise man came and told him to follow the stars..."

Little Dreamer, Ensiferum 2001

Since the dawn of time, my time, I was fascinated by the wonders of the heavens. As a child I was spending hours and hours under the star-filled skies, enjoying the magnificence of those trembling spot-lights in that vast pitch-black celestial canvas. 

At first with naked eyes, using my imagination to traverse from constellation to constellation. Then with a pair of binoculars my father bought me, struggling to spot star-clusters and other Messier objects. Then with a telescope... 

But during all these years, I was also spending a large amount of time studying. Books, magazines, encyclopaedias, you name it! And in -each and every- astronomy book you will ever open, you'll see a picture like the one that follows. A similar one was decorating my bedroom walls for a nearly decade.  


Source

What is this? 
You have probably hear this phenomenon as "Northern Lights" or "Aurora Borealis". For the Greeks, "Πολικό Σέλας". Less common the "Aurora Australis" which is the counterpart of the Aurora Borealis in the South. 

These lights, which are painting the night-skies close to Earth's magnetic poles, are caused -in general- by the Solar Wind. After charged particles are released from the Sun during a CME, some of them arrive to Earth, and their interaction with Earth's magnetic field has this spectacular phenomenon as a result.

This phenomenon is very common in the polar regions of the Earth, and only in very special situations, also visible from other parts of the Worlds. 

And as a little dreamer, I always wanted to lay eyes on these lights. It was a goal to be completed at some point of my life. During my latest trip, I added a destination especially for this goal. ICELAND

After doing some research online, I found out that from December to February Iceland offers Ideal conditions to observe the Northern Lights. So, after crossing Europe, I found myself in a Car with 4 Argentinians chasing charged particles while driving the huge ring-road of -the unique- Iceland. 

Red and Green Northern Lights as captured by Fermin, while we were close to Vik, Iceland. 

Here are some tips and information that is good to know if you're planning to visit Iceland for this

What to have in mind?
  • Iceland is in the North. Far North. Far Far North. At a latitude of 66° 33′ 44″ (or 66.5622°) is one of the countries that borders the Arctic Circle. At this level of latitude there are some unique conditions regarding sunlight. During Summer months, the Sun sets for about only 3 hours, while in Winter -for example in late December- there are only 4 hours of sunlight. So don't show up in Iceland during June and expect to enjoy Northern Lights.
  • Since Northern Lights is a phenomenon caused by the Sun, you can't have a long-term prediction for when you'll be able to watch them. Using information from NASA's SOHO, we're able to have a short-term prediction, usually 3-4 days in advance. Once you are in Iceland, you can use the Aurora Forecast website to plan your observations. 
  • Iceland has extreme weather conditions. EXTREME. On our way to some hot springs, we begun our hike under light cloud-covered skies, caught up in a thick snowstorm, and when we arrived at our destination, the skies were clear and the Sun begun to shine. All these in a timeframe of 2 hours. Keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading out, but don't be surprised if you find it totally different. 
Weather in Iceland can be tricky. Here you can spot Aurora Borealis as seen through cloudy skies.
Photo by Fermin
  • Speaking on weather, since you'll probably head there in winter, make sure you'll have warm clothes. No, not that warm, warmer! No, not warmer, the WARMEST. Isotherm body underwear, layers of fleece, a windproof-rainproof jacket, gloves, hat, scarf, socks and some more socks. A hot beverage in a thermos will also be ideal. My crazy Argentinian friends used a 60% Vodka instead. Not wise if you're the one who drives, cause there's 0% tolerance by Police when it comes to driving after drinking.
  • Head away from the city lights. Don't expect to be inside Reykjavik or Akureyri and enjoy those spectacular views. Rent a car or take an (expensive) Aurora Trip by the numerous companies around the city, and go for the clear skies. You won't have a problem finding a spot, Iceland has pure dark-pitch-black skies all over the island. 
Orion as seen through Icelandic clear skies, away from light pollution.
Photo by Salome Martinez
  • If you want to take some photos, bring an SLR camera with you and a tripod. Aurora photography requires some long exposures (15+ seconds) and you'll definitely need that tripod. After all, everyone wants a photo like this one: 
Posing in front of the car-lights, beneath the Northern Lights.
Con mis amigos: Salo, Maca, Fer and Caro
With all that in mind, plan to stay at least 5-6 days, so that you have more chances to catch this celestial treasure. It's really worth every sacrifice you'll make...


"We reach for the stars, we’ll find a rainbow
We reach for the stars, we’ll find our lives"

"Will you reach for the stars?"
To Chase the Stars, Aslan 1989

6 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Fer, hope we meet again on another journey ;)

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  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Carolina! Enjoy your trip in Asia. Hope to see you soon (Ukraine probably?) :p

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  3. je taksidiwtis, je siggrafeas! klamene, mia xara fenounte ;p

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    Replies
    1. Θα εμπορούσε να εν πιο τούμπανα τα γέριμα :p
      Εν πειράζει, επόμενη φορά να τα δούμε τζιε να παίζει πουπίσω το Aslan

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