I saw the northern lights in Iceland. They were not what I expected.

I had seen the iconic green and violet images of the dancing lights on countless magnets, mouse pads and postcards. So why were they white?
Published June 20

The words of the Reykjavik Street Dog restaurant employee swirled around in my head: “The northern lights often look milky white.”

This couldn’t possibly be true, I reasoned. After all, I had seen the iconic green and violet images of the dancing lights on countless magnets, mouse pads and postcards in gift shop after gift shop in Iceland’s capital.

Like so many others, seeing the northern lights, or aurora borealis, had been high on my bucket list. This trip was my chance.

My cousin had booked us on a northern lights excursion for our final night in Iceland, but I was starting to fret. What if the lights didn’t cooperate? Was limiting myself to one opportunity to see them wise, especially after traveling more than 3,500 miles?

As my cousin, my college-age daughters and I wandered around Reykjavik after the sun set, I began to ask locals where I might see the lights from downtown. Grotta Lighthouse, several said. I was fully prepared to ditch my companions and chase the lights alone. Then I found out how much it would cost to get there and reconsidered.

As we returned to our Airbnb, my mind went back to those two words: “milky white.”

I decided I had better start researching the northern lights, the natural phenomenon that occurs when charged particles from the sun enter Earth’s atmosphere. There was no shortage of information online, from websites that forecast the likelihood of seeing the lights to sites that detail how to photograph them. It’s not an easy task and requires a camera with a manual setting and a tripod. I had a basic digital camera and an outdated cellphone.

I went to sleep, exhausted from information overload and worry. My cousin woke me up about 30 minutes later. She was in the kitchen, and she said she thought she could see the northern lights. I was incredulous, muttering a question laced with an expletive as I sprang out of bed. Then I looked out the third-floor window and saw what she saw. It was not clouds, but it was something — and milky white. I had to get a closer look.

Within minutes, past midnight, I was layered up and hustling in 30-degree temperatures toward the waterfront, where I thought I’d have the best view and the least light. I didn’t even stay on the sidewalk toward the end, scaling a 15-foot hill to save time.

At water’s edge, I met a lovely young French couple who had seen what we saw and followed the trail. The man removed his camera from the tripod perched on the rocks and showed me his pictures.

The lights looked stunning. And green.

A few minutes later, two women from Canada stopped to ask what we were looking at. One of the women said she wouldn’t have thought anything of the white streaks in the sky had she not seen us gazing.

After everyone left, I lingered. The shape-shifting display was a perfect precursor to what I hoped would be a fruitful northern lights excursion.

Later that morning, I recounted what I had learned about the northern lights and how to photograph them. One daughter adjusted her cellphone settings in anticipation of the evening’s outing. My other daughter downloaded the Northern Lights Photo Taker app for 99 cents from the Apple App Store. They were my best chance for photographs, should we be lucky enough to see the northern lights.

• • •

The excitement was palpable as our tour bus pulled away at 9 p.m.

I had already seen the lights, technically, but not the swirling greens of my dreams. I was cautiously optimistic.

Our guide, Hronn Axelsdottir, gave us a primer during the drive, discussing a little of the science behind the aurora borealis and how to get the best photos, cautioning us against looking at our bright cellphone screens before looking up at the lights. As we age, she said, it can be harder to see the colors. She also mentioned “aurora” meant “dawn” — my name. Clearly, that was a sign.

About 30 minutes in, the bus pulled over unexpectedly and Hronn announced we were stopping to look at the lights. People gathered their coats and camera equipment, many of them setting up tripods. It was so dark, save for occasional headlights, that it was a bit unnerving. The ground was uneven, and I couldn’t see where the pavement ended and the grass embankment began.

I quickly, but cautiously, got away from the rest of the group to enjoy this special moment with the lights, which were lovely — and white. (My cousin later referred to the hue as “eggshell.”)

I was transfixed on the gorgeous ribbons that were morphing before my eyes in a sky that would have been glorious on its own, filled with more stars than I had ever seen.

Then, after 20 or 30 minutes, it was time to go.

When I rejoined my daughters on the bus, I took a look at their photos. They didn’t come out great, but there was some green. My photos all looked the same: black.

Our next stop was a community house in Hvalfjordur, which, to my surprise, had bright lights. I quickly separated from the group, walking about a half-mile down the road, away from the lights and the others, and probably where I shouldn’t have been. I could tell by the smells that horses were nearby. I sat down and took it in. Beautiful.

And white.

After 15 or 20 minutes, I needed to thaw out. I returned to the bus, which was full, save for a few people and Hronn.

It was obvious that Hronn, who has been a guide for four years, is passionate about the northern lights. While we warmed up, she stayed outside to monitor conditions and take photos with her tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D Mark II. She told us she’d let us know if the auroral activity got stronger and advise us on whether to come back out.

Eventually, I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on a toasty bus in Iceland while Mother Nature was putting on a show outside, colorful or not. I had to watch it. I got on and off the bus a good half-dozen times.

We never did get the signal to come outside again.

The bus was quiet as we drove back to Reykjavik. Most people relaxed or slept. I craned my neck, looking out the window for 10 or 15 minutes until the lights disappeared in the distance.

• • •

When I returned to Florida days later, I was still processing what I had and hadn’t seen in the Icelandic sky, trying to make sense of it.

I reached out to Hronn, who had been kind enough to post a few of her photos on Facebook.

“Are the northern lights ever green to the naked eye?” I asked.

“We often see the lights pale green,” Hronn said via email. “Part of the problem is when it is dark the eye doesn’t distinguish color. We keep the shutter on the (camera) lens between 15-30 seconds. We can never keep the eyes open for so long.”

Cloud formations and light pollution also can affect what we see. “Always best to have no clouds and the less ambient light the better success you have at seeing color,” Hronn said.

I also contacted Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center, which was founded in 2013 by photographer-aurora hunters, and which I wish I had discovered while I was in Iceland.

Photographer Gretar Jonsson, the center’s founder and CFO, was happy to further educate me.

“To observe a fast-dancing, colorful display, stronger auroral activity is required,” Jonsson explained via email.

“We’ve photographed fantastic northern lights displays, and we have been lucky enough to observe a wide range of colors with our bare eyes,” Jonsson said. “But we never really know what the true color of the aurora is unless we’re looking at our camera’s screen.”

It took a minute to wrap my head around that last part. It largely comes back to the strength of auroral activity and the human eye’s ability to perceive colors in the dark. It’s a rods and cones thing.

“The camera certainly enhances the intensity of an average display because it is accumulating that light over a longer duration of time,” Jonsson said. “In northern lights photography, we are leaving the shutter open for 1-30 seconds, collecting more light and color. Our eyes generally have about 1/10th of a second ‘shutter speed.’

“You can easily compare this with a watercolor picture: If you have opaque watercolors but you paint them on in layers, the colors get more vibrant with each layer. Leaving the camera’s shutter open for a long duration allows many layers to be painted onto the final canvas.”

Jonsson added “it is very individual how humans process the colors; age, color- or night-blindness make it more difficult to receive the colors.”

So, there it was.

• • •

I consider myself very fortunate to have seen the northern lights not just once, but twice, even though my experience was different than I had envisioned. But I’m not done chasing that green and violet.

I’m contemplating a trip to Tromso, Norway, a northern lights hot spot north of the Arctic Circle, over my daughters’ spring break in March, and the purchase of a nice camera and tripod. If I don’t catch the dancing lights in Tromso, I hope to see something else I’ve had on my bucket list: reindeer.

They sometimes look milky white.

Contact Dawn Cate at decate@tampabay.com.

Happy hunting

When should I go? This is an oft-asked question, and there is no definitive answer. Late August to March or April seems to be a commonly cited range. The northern lights can be particularly active around the equinoxes. (The next one is Sept. 23.) There are no guarantees, however.

Where should I go? The list of places from which the lights might be visible includes Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Canada, Alaska and even North Dakota. Clear and dark skies are optimal.

How do I find the lights once I’m there? Consider a tour. Guides will try to take you to the best places (away from light pollution). If you don’t go that route, get an app that will notify you of auroral activity nearby and point you in the right direction. There are several, including the My Aurora Forecast & Alerts app and Aurora Alerts. A number of websites track the probability of auroral activity, and some include details on the Kp-index, which measures geomagnetic activity, and the amount of cloud cover. Among them:

• swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-30-minute-forecast

• aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast

• en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora (specific to Iceland)

How do I photograph the northern lights? You’ll want a camera with manual settings, which will allow you to adjust the shutter speed, aperture and more. You’ll also want a tripod. There’s a lot to photographing the northern lights. Numerous tutorials and tips can be found online. If you’re in Iceland’s capital, you can get pointers at Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center, which is run by photographers (aurorareykjavik.is).

A little folklore: According to Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, which had a “Light of the Valkyries” show, “The Vikings believed the northern lights were Valkyries, warrior spirits who descended from heaven to take fallen heroes from the battlefield to Valhalla, the palace of the gods.” Other cultures interpreted the northern lights in different ways.

Fun fact: Most of us have heard of the northern lights (aurora borealis), but the southern lights (aurora australis) exist, too. (The southern lights occur in the Southern Hemisphere. Think Tasmania, New Zealand, Antarctica.)

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