I’ve just returned from a week-long aurora-watching tour of Iceland. Although many consider Canada to be a prime location for viewing northern lights, the reality is that most of us live too far south and too near city lights to see auroral displays very often. In many ways Iceland is the perfect destination. On most nights, the auroral oval extends far enough south to lie directly above this small, island country. And as a wondrous bonus, Iceland is one of the most fascinating places to explore during daylight hours as well.
This was my second Icelandic aurora expedition, so I had some idea of what to expect. The weather at the end of March can be (and usually is) temperamental. But that’s both good and bad. The bad is that it’s often cloudy, but the good is that it usually doesn’t remain so for long. Clear breaks come along frequently. In many respects, the northern lights are more dependable than the weather — you can almost always count on some level of auroral activity, but the question is whether or not skies will be clear.
As luck would have it, our observing group was able to view the northern lights on three out of five nights. Our first taste was a modest aurora that flickered in and out of view between clouds. The second display was enjoyable, but again clouds intruded and eventually took over the sky. The following night was wonderfully clear, but the northern lights failed to show — not even a trace was seen. It was on our final night in Iceland that the fates aligned to give us perfectly clear skies and an impressive aurora.
The show began that night as soon as twilight faded. At first, there was just a modest glowing arc hovering above the northern horizon. In a matter of ten or fifteen minutes, the arc brightened, expanded, and then burst across the sky with impressive brightness and speed. A beautiful, pale green curtain arched overhead, festooned with slowly moving rays. Soon, a second arc appeared and by then nearly the entire sky was pulsing with luminosity. Cameras clattered in the background while excited cries drifted from one end of the observing field to the other. This was what we came for, and no one wanted to let a single auroral photon get away.
After a few hours, the spectacle gradually began to wane, and one by one aurora watchers drifted off to bed, tired but very, very happy. The show was over, but the memories of a wondrous trip will remain.