I have been very fortunate to have experienced a number of spectacular moments – many of which I have shared or will share with you on this blog. Today I want to talk about a particularly unique life altering event – viewing the Northern Lights in the middle of a snow-covered lava field in a secluded area of Iceland. To date I know of no other activity that nears the mercurial, ethereal, natural beauty of the Aurora Borealis – enlighten me if you disagree.
First, a short science lesson. What is the Aurora Borealis? A dictionary defines an aurora as:
noun: aurora borealis
1. a natural electrical phenomenon characterized by the appearance of streamers of reddish or greenish light in the sky, usually near the northern or southern magnetic pole.
2.literary – the dawn.
What causes this light? We must travel 94 million miles to our sun for its inception. Our special star is a furnace of turbulent activity of plasma (Wikipedia: Plasma (from Greek πλάσμα, “anything formed”) is one of the four fundamental states of matter, the others being solid, liquid, and gas. A plasma has properties unlike those of the other states) and magnetic fields. In a sense, the sun is like a large heart and it beats really hard every 10 or 12 years, known as the solar cycle. The intensity of a solar cycle can be measured by the number of sunspots visible on the sun as well as the flare of energy it spews out into space.
When this plasma reaches the earth’s atmosphere basically its electrons get really excited and start jumping around to an even higher excited state. When these highly aroused electrons meet with the magnetic field and the various gases within our atmosphere – this excitement is transformed into light. The earth’s most abundant gas, oxygen, turns green in this state – and there you have it – the aurora is born. Other gases such as nitrogen in our atmosphere produce different colors such as red, blue or yellow.
interestingly, excited atoms are part of how neon lights work – but there is no way I will compare a neon sign to the aurora’s vast majestic light. In fact, though the scientific side of my brain understands the principle behind these lights – I would rather believe in the mythology surrounding them – that they are either, as the Norse believed a fire skybridge built by the gods, or as many First Nations Peoples believe, that they are the spirits of their ancestors dancing in the sky.
One of the deciding factors in booking my trip to Iceland in the first week of December was that the timing coincided with the apex of the sun’s 12 year cycle. In fact there have been many recent news reports about extremely intense solar flares being thrown off into space, thereby setting the stage for a stunning and dazzling display. This must be tempered however, with the fact the sky needs to not only be free from any light pollution but also clear. Winter skies, particularly in Iceland are sketchy. In fact we had been told there was a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes and it will change.”
To further illustrate the precariousness of an aurora sighting, innumerable disclaimers written on every tourist pamphlet and newsletter state categorically that there is no guarantee even if all conditions look positive, that an aurora will be seen – in fact, our first scheduled trip into the Iceland interior to see the lights was cancelled due to non-conducive weather conditions. Mother Nature is the Queen – and we must wait upon her desires.
Still, as Fräulein Maria sang, “I must have done something good,” for on our second night in Iceland, all systems were “go” for a sighting. Our first stop, however, did not provide an aurora – but rather some otherworldly shots that looked more like the Moon rather than Mother Earth:
We moved further out into the wilderness – about an hour or so outside of Reykjavik – and then it happened. First just a plume of light that looked like it was coming from behind the Wizard’s curtain:
Then a little more, tendrils appearing as though the aurora was trying to encompass the moon:
Even the Big Dipper was not immune to the encroaching aurora:
Then the sky just filled with swirls and arcs. I should mention at that some point I became the groups’ photographer as my camera had a special setting called “Starry Night” which kept the lens aperture open for 8 seconds, allowing enough light to capture the aurora – a simple point and click camera couldn’t get enough light. So with shouts of “Cindy here!” “Cindy come over here!” “Cindy, forget about your freezing fingers – we need you here!” – some of these shouts coming from complete strangers, mind you. Thank you, Malcolm, for making sure my hat stayed on as I ran around trying to get the best shots: Here are some of the results:
It didn’t end here. Like a fireworks show that begins with a few smaller explosions then builds to a cacophony of light – the aurora kept coming and coming. I captured 140 photos of this majestic phenomenon – and can’t post them all (if you would like to see the complete set, send me a note with your email and I will give you the website) but here are a few of the biggest “gets:”
And, additional Wizard of Oz moments with an aurora twister – we were definitely not in Kansas:
And the finale – bursting with color:
The show was over – at least an hour’s worth, and the aurora drifted away:
The sky was once again just filled with the moon and stars. Sated, our group headed back to our coach for the ride back to the hotel. But, before it could leave, I was suddenly inundated with business cards as people ran up the aisle, requesting a link to see my photos once we got back to the States. I was happy to oblige these as well as other travelers I met at the hotel and even on the airplane home. This breathtaking experience has to be shared to be believed.
I BELIEVE! I BELIEVE! Or in the words of a GoT character (it does film in this area of Iceland) :
Next up: More of Iceland’s natural wonders – as well as some man-made – stay tuned!