After finally witnessing a total solar eclipse and declaring it the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, I started hearing people say things like, “Wait until you see the northern lights.” So when fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I planned an Iceland photo trip to prepare for our upcoming photo workshop, we chose January because it’s right the heart of northern lights season. Could the northern lights’ beauty really rival a total solar eclipse? (Spoiler alert: Yes.)
An Aurora Primer
Our planet is continuously bombarded by solar energy. When this perpetual solar wind encounters Earth’s atmosphere, a narrow range of wavelengths (infrared and visible) passes through to warm us and light our way. But other energy wavelengths in the solar wind interact differently with the molecules they encounter, creating an charge imbalance by stripping electrons.
Instead of penetrating our atmosphere to create havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these charged particles (ions) are intercepted by the magnetosphere, our protective magnetic shield. The magnetosphere is teardrop shaped, with the battered side that faces the sun compressed, and the shielded side behind Earth stretching much farther into space.
As Earth rotates, at any given moment the side facing the sun (the daylight side) looks out through the thinner, compressed side of our magnetosphere, while the night side of Earth faces the extended region of the magnetosphere. Just as the upwind face of a wall or building breaks a wind, the sunward side of the magnetosphere sheds the charged particles and channels them to upper regions of Earth’s leeward (night) side. It’s these ionized molecules dancing high in the night sky that cause an aurora.
The result of these atmospheric machinations is an atmospheric oval of geomagnetic activity corresponding to the intensity of the solar wind—the greater the activity, the greater the oval’s area and the intensity of its aurora activity. The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved. The most plentiful and frequently activated molecules vibrate in the green wavelengths, but reds and blues are possible as well, depending on the intensity and altitude of the activity.
As with terrestrial weather, there’s no such thing as an aurora “sure thing”—the best we can do is put ourselves in position to be as close to the auroral oval, on nights with the greatest chance for auroral activity. Planning a winter trip to the high latitudes (the higher the better), like Iceland, is a good start.
Another key to aurora chasing is understanding and monitoring the Kp- (or K-) index. The Kp-index is a 0-9 scale of atmospheric electromagnetic activity, with 0 being little or no activity (get some sleep), and 9 being the most extreme activity (don’t forget the sunglasses). Many governments and scientific organizations issue regular Kp forecasts that seem about as reliable as a weather forecast—pretty good, but far from perfect. There are many websites and smartphone apps that will provide you with up-to-date Kp forecasts for your current location—some will even issue alerts.
Let the chase begin
Armed with more knowledge than experience, in the last week of January we set out for Iceland’s frozen hinterlands with visions of auroras dancing in our heads. Fortunate for us, our guide was an Iceland native and an excellent photographer with years of northern lights experience.
By day we photographed all the winter-accessible locations on Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula and South Coast, benefiting greatly from winter’s 2-hour sunrises and sunsets and a sun that never rose higher than 8 degrees above the horizon. And by night we bundled up and ventured into the frigid dark seeking an electric light show.
For our nightly aurora hunt we’d drive to a pretty scene that had both dark skies (not hard to find in Iceland) and a clear view of the northern sky. There we’d sit for an hour or two, fogging the windows in the guide’s spacious Suburban, regularly stepping into the cold darkness to scan the sky.
We quickly learned the uncertain, frustrating nature of aurora hunting. Nights with potential were stifled by clouds; nights with clear skies were Kp washouts. So with just two nights in Iceland remaining, I was getting a little anxious.
The final two nights would be spent near Glacier Lagoon, a magnificent ocean inlet dotted with floating icebergs and a patchwork of thin ice and reflective water that created an ideal foreground for the northern lights.
The forecasts for Wednesday, our penultimate night, were clear skies, and a 1 or 2 Kp index. Not great, but the best weather/Kp combination of the trip. And our guide assured us that even Kp 1 can deliver an aurora, and Kp 2 can be a very nice display. Pulling into the Glacier Lagoon parking lot beneath a beautiful star-studded sky, we saw no aurora. So we waited.
Soon what I swore was fog appeared above the lagoon, but the guide insisted this was the beginnings of northern lights. Dubious, we followed him down to the lagoon and I was thrilled (understatement) when a long exposure revealed not fog, but my first view of the northern lights! We spent a couple of hours photographing a low-hanging, fuzzy green haze, occasionally infused with hints of red. Except for just a few minutes at its peak, the aurora we photographed that night had no real definition, but I really didn’t care because I could check northern lights off my bucket list. Little did I know that the show that night was just a warm-up for the next night’s experience.
The Kp forecast for Thursday night was 4 or 5, which our guide told us was perfect because anything more than Kp 5 can be too bright. The weather was a different story and all we could do was watch the sky all day and hope. Despite a nearly 100 percent cloud cover at sunset, we optimistically headed back to the lagoon.
Waiting in the lagoon parking lot, the clouds parted to reveal a faint aurora ebb and flow, but stayed in the car because, “This is no better than last night.” (One success and we’re already aurora snobs.) What looked promising out my north-facing side window one minute, all but disappeared the next. Then we noticed new activity in the western sky that went from 0-to-60 so fast that we bolted down to the lagoon like Keystone Cops. By the time I was set up the sky had transformed into a green and red psychedelic extravaganza.
The next two hours were a blur as I witnessed what was quite possibly the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life. Starting across the lagoon, in the western sky, the show gradually moved south (defying all my expectations), forcing me to constantly shift further up the lagoon to keep the ice and water in my foreground.
With my head on a swivel, I saw glowing tendrils stretch skyward, some touching both the east and west horizons, others pulsing, spiraling, and doubling back until felt like I was inside a giant lava lamp. At one point I tore my eyes from the show above the lagoon and saw the entire eastern sky ablaze with tangled green ribbons so intense that I turned my back on the lagoon and frantically scaled the snowy hill behind me for a better view in that direction. Over the course of maybe 20 minutes, that display rocketed heavenward, filled the entire eastern sky from horizon to zenith, shifted north, and finally back to the west and over the lagoon, forcing me race (and tumble) back down the hill.
The display was still going when we left, but at some point it just felt greedy to keep shooting (and we couldn’t wait to return to the hotel to count our riches).
Getting a shot like this requires a significant amount of good fortune for sure, but all the good fortune in the world will do you no good if you don’t:
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.