Her wonder was so strong that she had to clutch the rail to keep from falling.
The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, grand curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skillful dancer.
– Philip Pullman – Northern Lights
Since the very first day I made a bucket list, seeing the northern lights has always been my number one item. And I know I’m not alone. Seeing the northern lights always scores incredibly highly in polls of ‘most popular bucket list items’, it seems we’re all captivated by the idea of catching a glimpse of this natural wonder. However, seeing them isn’t always easy, and I know countless people who have travelled North in the hopes of getting lucky who have been disappointed. Regardless, when we decided to visit Iceland I knew I had to try.
Over the course of 16 nights in Iceland, I saw the aurora no less than 8 times! That’s a 50% success rate (or higher if you consider that I didn’t even look out for them every night). I’m not going to pretend like that wasn’t outstandingly lucky or mega jammy, because it was. But it wasn’t just down to chance. I researched and prepared in every way I could before I went, and out there I did a fair amount of hunting, all whilst watching the forecasts like a hawk. I also spent money on all of the equipment I needed in order to take some stunning pictures that I’ll now treasure forever.
By doing all of this, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about how to see and photograph the Aurora Borealis, and the following two posts are the culmination of everything I know. First I’ll discuss finding the northern lights, and in my next post how to photograph them. A lot of my advice is based around Iceland, since that is what I know best, but most of the following information applies equally to seeing the aurora anywhere in the world.
Finding the Aurora
First things first, how do you even find the northern lights!? Like any natural phenomenon, nothing is ever guaranteed, but there are certainly some key ways that you can massively increase your chances.
Don’t visit in summer
There is only one way that you stand a 0% chance of seeing the aurora, and that’s to plan your trip for the summer. In order to see the aurora you need darkness, and in order to see it strongly and get good photographs you need preferably total darkness, but nothing lighter than astronomical twilight. Without getting too bogged down in terminology here, what that means is that in Iceland for example, you basically can’t see the aurora after the 26th of April or before the 16th of August (or thereabouts). Inside this time, the days start to get really long, including a period where there is no darkness whatsoever, called midnight sun. To show the difference between what you might see during astronomical twilight and total darkness, compare the top image to the bottom (both taken during high activity levels on the same night):
There’s a whole host of factors to consider when you’re deciding when to visit Iceland, which I discuss in more detail in a separate post, but any time from September to early April is a good bet for seeing the northern lights. I’d also personally recommend going as close to summer as you can (i.e. April or September/October) because you’ll get more daylight to do other things (reducing the chances of feeling crushingly disappointed if you don’t catch the northern lights, since you’ll have still had an awesome holiday) and it *might* be slightly warmer, something you will appreciate when you are standing outside for hours on end in the middle of the night, trust me.
Plan a longer stay
The more nights you have to hunt, the better your chances of striking lucky. That’s basic probability, baby. And you can take it from me, I’m a mathematician. Aside from the fact that Iceland is easily one of the best places I’ve ever been, and crammed full of amazing things to see and do to keep you busy for weeks, I’d recommend at least a week (whether you’re in Iceland or another country) if you want a good shot at finding a night where all of the required elements for seeing the northern lights fall into place.
Read the forecasts
Here’s where I’ll focus more specifically on Iceland, as this is where my experience lies. Iceland has a fantastic website, vedur.is which you’re going to need to rely heavily on for not just aurora forecasts but also all elements of the crazy Icelandic weather that you’ll want to be prepared for! The aurora forecast for any particular day might look something like this:
First of all, on the map you’re going to be hoping to see lots of white. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty darn confusing that on page showing forecasts of seeing a phenomenon that is green, they made green a bad thing, but basically dark green means total cloud cover whilst white means clear skies. And you definitely want clear skies. If you’re in an area that has cloud cover, can you drive to a nearby area of clear skies? If not, I wouldn’t dismay, the second best show we saw in Iceland was on a night that predicted total cloud cover across the whole country, and we had perfectly clear skies all night. Icelandic weather is crazy and the forecast is not gospel, the best thing you can do is look out of the window, and if you think there are gaps in the clouds then go for a drive, you never know. It’s also important to note that the forecast is updated regularly, and I wouldn’t hold too much credence to anything except the forecast for the current day, because it’s likely to change. For this reason you need to check it regularly. Like a few times a day, really. It’s usually updated for the final time each day around 4.30pm, but not always so it’s worth an extra check in the evening, if you’re able.
The second element of the forecast (and happily the less volatile of the two) is the kp forecast, which is a box on the right hand side of the page which looks like this:
This tells you the forecast level of activity. Since this is based on solar activity and the number of days which it takes for this solar activity to reach earth, the kp forecast doesn’t change as much as the cloud forecast and is generally pretty darn reliable. What does it mean? In a nutshell, a one or a two means next to no activity (though it’s worth remembering that if you’re coming from somewhere like the UK, your kp index on basically every day is a zero – so this is a step up not to be sniffed at!). A rating of three means fair activity and anything above that means happy, happy days. In particular anything five or above is when you start getting into something called ‘storm level’ which means high activity and possibly some really interesting colours and fast dances in the sky – you’re definitely lucking out if you get a forecast like that!
It’s hard to really equate the numbers to what you’re going to see in the sky, what really matters is that above a kp 2 you stand a decent chance of seeing something, so get out there and search!
Another thing which I found incredibly helpful was following @Aurora_Alerts on Twitter, and turning on notifications for their tweets. They tell you in real time when waves of activity are starting and ending, and although from experience it’s not always perfectly aligned with when the Northern Lights are out, on any day when your phone keeps buzzing with updates, it’s a good sign that you should go hunting.
Get a data plan
Live twitter updates bring me on to my next point – internet access is your friend. In order to check the forecast and receive activity updates ideally you need to be able to get online frequently. I have O2 travel, which is an excellent data plan meaning that I can use unlimited internet across Europe for £2 per day – super helpful! Most mobile networks offer similar deals, or you could buy a local sim and data plan when you arrive in the country if your phone is unlocked. Iceland never ceased to amaze me because although you’re almost always in the middle of nowhere with no towns or civilisation around for miles, there was exceptionally good phone coverage over the entire country. Coming from the UK where that is most definitely not the case even though the whole country is so much more built up, I was seriously impressed! You can also find free wifi in many places too, especially Olis petrol stations which should become your new best friend due to the free coffee, reduced petrol prices and ridiculously cheap hotdogs you can get with an Olis card. Free wifi is not something to rely on completely though, with certain parts of the country having little or no manned petrol stations and other places to find wifi.
Get a car & get away from the city
If you have the option of hiring a car and getting away from Reykjavik then you should do it, not least of all because you need to escape the light pollution of the city in order to see the aurora in it’s full glory, but also because it’s cheaper and more flexible than going with a tour. The tours are great and all – and in fact on our second night in Iceland the high forecast aurora activity the night before we got our campervan made us panic book onto a tour. This is when we saw the Northern Lights for the first time, an unforgettable moment for many reasons, and probably the third best activity we saw during our trip.
The tours have only got one advantage over going solo though, which is the fact they have more eyes on the ground to find gaps in any potential cloud cover, with many buses going out each night and communicating areas of clear skies to the rest of the fleet. I would say that this is outweighed by the fact that beyond that they are doing the exact same thing I’m telling you to do, which is check the vedur.is cloud cover forecast and get away from the light pollution of Reykjavik – honestly as simple as that. I was shocked that first night because I expected the tour guide to have some sort of specialist knowledge or equipment, but when I sat near the front and watched the him, he was just refreshing the forecast webpage and heading to the exact same place I’d planned to go if we had hired a car for the night myself! And the tour meant paying twice the price of a rental car for the night, and sharing the experience with a busload of other people, too. My final niggle is that the tours can only stay for so long before heading back to Reykjavik, so if it’s going to be a stunning show all night, you’re only going to be able to see if for about an hour before turning and heading back – no fair!
Obviously not everyone has the option or ability to hire a car and if this is the case then the tours are a great option, not least because if you are unsuccessful they almost all offer to take you out for a second attempt on another night of your choosing, at no extra cost.
Be prepared to stay up all night
A cursory check of the skies for any activity before heading to bed will categorically mean missing the action most of the time. The Northern Lights tend to come and go in waves, and they might not start being active at all until some random hour of the night. I’m certainly not suggesting you become nocturnal for the duration of your holiday but if it’s a really promising forecast that night and you’re dead set on seeing the aurora during your trip, it’s worth staying up late and ideally going for a drive away from any light pollution, if you can.
A final note
It’s always worth reiterating that even with the best preparation in the world, you might not see the Northern Lights during your trip. We went to Iceland fully prepared for the possibility that we might not see them even once, and to be totally honest, if we hadn’t then Iceland would still be one of the best places I’ve ever been. Iceland is so utterly beautiful, has a million amazing things to see and do, including hoards of other natural phenomenon that are much easier to pin down than lights in the sky, and does it all with magic and wonder coming out of it’s Elvish ears!
We struck very lucky, because for weeks before we arrived there had been endless kp 2 forecasts with little or no activity to be seen. Just before we arrived things started hotting up, and people started to get excited. During our stay, there was a massive solar storm that meant three nights of really high activity, greens and pinks glittering across the sky all night, to the not-so-gentle sound of me repeatedly shouting ‘OH MY GOD LOOK AT IT’ to Nick over and over and over.
Whatever it is about the elusive green lights in the sky that captures the interest of myself and so many others, there is no denying that they are without a doubt the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I wish you happy and successful hunting!
Read my guide to photographing the Northern Lights next.