Last night’s level 9 aurora display was muted by overcast skies. Tonight’s display was forecast to be a level 7 event, and it was … wow. “Amazing” doesn’t begin to describe it.
Right at the outset, I want to make a confession: the photos I took can’t do the northern lights justice. I’m not sure any photos really can. I used a Canon Rebel T3i that I’ve had for many years, with a 28mm f1.8 Sigma lens – pretty decent mid-range gear. Because I planned on long exposures, I had a tripod and a remote shutter release. I made one critical error in my initial photos, which I’ll get to in a moment.
There are three tools I rely on for aurora hunting: the Icelandic Meteorology Office aurora forecast site generally is good at predicting the solar and terrestrial weather outlook a day or two ahead; the Norwegian Meteorological Institute’s hour-by-hour weather forecasts, which my Icelandic classmates swear by; and the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s 30-minute forecast that reports solar wind readings from the ACE satellite located about 1.5 million kilometers (just under a million miles) from the Earth in the direction of the Sun. When these three predict clear skies and a lot of solar wind, it’s time to find a place to enjoy the show.
I went to two locations: first the foothills of Mount Esja, north of the capital city, and later on Hvalfjörður, a little bit further up the road. Just after sunset, the first faint purple streaks appeared in the sky. They were barely visible, and for a while I wasn’t sure whether they were really there.
The first set of pictures I took are terribly blurry because I didn’t check to see whether the auto-focus option on my lens was switched off. Still, the next few pictures give an idea of what was happening as night fell.
The two things that have always surprised me most about the northern lights are that they are constantly in motion, and that they are utterly silent. Growing up with thunderstorms, fireworks displays, and Hollywood special effects departments, I really expect lights in the sky to be accompanied by lots of noise. But the aurora is completely silent.
After it got dark, the sky … well, it sort of went a little crazy up there. Eventually, I fixed my focus problem and got some nice photos.
One thing I found out, pretty much by accident: even if the spectacle in front of you is magnificent, it’s worth turning around to see what nature is doing behind your back.
This is a fantastic place by day. But the nights are pretty amazing, too.
Image credit, all images: author.