The hunt for green ember 7.2.2012 Words by Clyde Bradford
You know those pictures you see of the Northern Lights? The ones where they engulf the night sky and the hues of green and red are really intense...You know they're not exactly accurate, right?
Of course it's the Northern Lights you're seeing in the photographs, but camera trickery is afoot! A bit like touching up the photo of a model, techniques are used to make the lights appear even more spectacular. The pictures are often ‘hyper-real.’ The lights are still pretty spectacular, but you need to know this information before you set off on your big adventure in search of them. You're not necessarily going to see what the pictures show you.
Our guide Snorri Valsson makes sure to inform us of this fact as we embark from the BSÍ bus terminal. Snorri and our driver Guðjón Bogason will be aiding and abetting our hunt this evening. Another thing you need to know is that the lights don't come out just because you decided you wanted to see them. They're no dancing monkey. But tonight holds the promise of the largest solar storm in seven years so we should be in for something spectacular!
The reason for this is that the lights are caused by the Sun emitting charged particles into space. When they reach Earth, they head towards the poles because the poles are magnetic. For this reason there are Northern (Aurora Borealis) and Southern (Aurora Australis) Lights. When they’re in the Earth’s atmosphere (in the Auroral zone to be precise), these charged particles bash into oxygen and nitrogen particles in the air, which creates green (oxygen reaction) and red (nitrogen reaction) light.
A solar storm means lots of charged particles, which means lots of Northern Light activity. This explains why there are five coaches full of people on the tour tonight. However, Iceland is currently being battered by storms. And with storms come clouds, the sworn enemy of any Northern Lights hunter. Snorri tells us that we will be heading to the hopefully cloud free Reykjanes peninsula, close to the international airport in Keflavík.
Thirty minutes down route 41 (the main arterial road between Reykjavík and Keflavík), we stop and Snorri jumps out to take a better peak at the night. “We need to head west,” he says and with that we’re off, Guðjón’s eyes on the road and Snorri’s eyes fixed firmly on the sky.
We’re now off route 41 and taking our chances on some less well lit roads... You don’t want pesky man-made light when you’re searching for the Northern Lights. Then murmurs start to pick up, heads peer skyward and eyes strain through coach windows—we have first contact.
I WAS THERE AND HERE’S THE PROOF
Piling out of the coach, the throng assembles and aims their cameras towards the sky. No comment. I head closer to the lights and watch them undulate about the atmosphere. It seems like we’ve hit the sweet spot and we get a good twenty minutes worth of action. But minutes later the lights begin to fade. The clouds are foiling us.
Snorri takes this opportunity to get us all back into the coach and we head towards the picturesque village of Hvalsnes—a prime Northern Lights viewpoint that also happens to appear in the film ‘Mýrin’ (“Jar City”).
As we approach town, we get a better view of the column of light streaking across the sky. It appears from behind the church and houses of Hvalsnes, and I crane my neck back to follow its route. Quickly giving up on that approach I spin around only to see the column disappearing behind the clouds.
The horizon catches my eyes as man-made light makes its attempt to vie for attention. A far off town obscured by hills throws up its lights and they bounce off the clouds that cover it from above. It looks as though the horizon is on fire. Good, but no dice... I spin back around and keep my eye on the Northern Lights until they fade from view.
The clouds have closed in again and as we all look hopefully to the sky, catching only glimmers of green light, a 4x4 arrives on the scene. It’s a local on his way to destination unknown and he needs to get by our coach. As he attempts to squeeze past, his 4x4 slides off the road. Disaster. Like a turtle on its back the guy needs help. Snorri, Guðjón and some of our group (myself included) give him a push back on to the road. It’s a tense few minutes, but real disaster is averted!
That brief bit of excitement out of the way, we go back to searching the sky for lights, but a few glimpses aside, we have no dice. It’s getting late so Snorri hustles us back into the warmth of the bus and we make our way back to our hotels and homes. Lights were seen, japes were had and a little bit of excitement even when the lights were hidden, but in the end we were mostly foiled by the clouds.