21 Sep 2014

Northern Lights-chasing in Iceland

My impulsive decision to visit Iceland to see the erupting Holuhraun volcano turned out to be extremely well-timed. On my second night there, staying at the southern end of Lake Myvatn, I witnessed a spectacular northern lights show. I'd read that there had been a solar event a couple of days earlier, which was likely to result in an impressive display that night. Earlier in the day I'd visited Dimmuborgir, a series of huge volcanic rock forms, and decided that these might make a good foreground for any light pictures. I drove there an hour after sunset, parked in the car-park, and wandered around a few of the paths in the rapidly-decreasing twilight, alone, scoping out some good rocks; I felt a little nervous. I found a couple of great formations, two together with a hole in each. Unfortunately they were facing east (north/north-west would have been better), but in all the other directions there were also interesting black shapes silhouetted against the sky.

Some of the formations look very face-like (it's hard not to suffer from pareidolia in Iceland - there are faces everywhere!), including this one that helped me understand why there are so many stories about trolls.

At 9.40pm I saw the first faint glimmer of auroral activity, mainly just a vague streak in my photos. I sat on the ground, patiently waiting for things to hot up, and eventually they did! By ten o'clock the skies were alive with activity, and by 10.30pm I thought that the sky was going to fall onto me, as I sat watching the lights dance above my head, shooting beams of faint green and purple light down towards me. Unlike my experience in March at Jokulsarlon, where my northern light viewing was accompanied by the cackle of thirty Japanese girls, here I was alone, surrounded by weird black jagged rocks, with no noise other than my own exclamations of wonder!


I decided I ought to try somewhere with a different view, so headed back along the dark paths to the car-park, just as the bright nearly-full moon rose from behind the black rocks. From a higher path above the car-park I could see the glow from the volcano on the horizon to the south, with gentle aurora glimmering above it.

I lingered on the hill for a while, looking to the west as the lights danced over Lake Myvatn, with the lights at Skutustaðir, where my hotel was, just visible to the south.

At 11pm I decided to go back to the hotel for a bit to warm up, check the lights forecast, and perhaps head off to Goðafoss. The lights had faded a little, although I could still see them with the naked eye in spite of the moonlight and ambient light around the lake (a good sign of activity!). The forecasts all showed activity levels of Kp6 - a serious auroral storm - but when I ventured out to the pseudo-craters at just past midnight the lights had more-or-less disappeared. An hour was spent looking at nothing, waiting in vain for the lights to return. I went back inside and then at 2am the forecast rose to Kp7, so I headed out again! The lights were back, visible clearly to the south-west, so I headed west around the lake to find something to capture. The moonlight was very bright by this stage, washing out any lights visible to the east. I'd driven past a small pointy mountain the day before, so parked opposite that when I found a pull-out. Without the moon the night would have been even more spectacular, but at least it lit up the foreground a little. I decided not to bother driving all the way to Goðafoss.

I continued on my journey round the lake, and drove up the hill towards Hverir, looking back at the lake and the geothermal plant. The cloud cover was increasing and the lights were fading, as was my energy. Just before 3am I called it a night, drove back to the hotel and managed to get a few hours' sleep.

The following night the auroral activity was low, but I managed to see a little glimmer over the pseudo-craters. Each night I obsessively checked all the forecasts I knew of (some had crashed the night before as a result of the increased activity because of the storm!). On my penultimate night I was staying in the west, at Grundarfjordur, where the beautiful Kirkjufell and nearby falls are situated. The skies were clear-ish, but the Kp activity was low - only hovering around 1.67. At 10pm though, the woman from reception of my hotel knocked on my door and told me that the lights were visible outside. I quickly dressed up (thermals, layers, gloves, hat, etc..) and headed outside, got in the car and drove to Kirkjufell. It was a strange thing to be doing, climbing up a hill in the dark, in order to photograph waterfalls and mountains at night, with aurora above, but I wasn't the only photographer there! There were a couple of others, and a couple more came and went during my hour there. The best displays were when I arrived, photographing just the mountain itself from near the roadside. Once I got to the falls the activity had subsided a bit, and the waning moon rose.

The lights were fairly static, and a huge swathe of green stripes hung above me, from the north-east to the south-west. Eventually I gave up and headed home, stopping once alongside some reeds at the lake's edge.

Considering I'd gone to Iceland to see the volcanic eruption I was extremely pleased that I'd also been treated to such incredible auroral displays, especially given that I'd seen practically nothing on my visits in 2012 and 2013. Fingers crossed for more next year.

For tips on how to photograph the northern lights see my blog from earlier this year.

More images from this trip can be seen in the Iceland Sept 2014 gallery on my website.

Please contact me on sophiecarrphotography@hotmail.co.uk for details on licensing/usage of these images.

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