April 14, 2024

Brighton Journal

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Hunting the Northern Lights in Iceland

Hunting the Northern Lights in Iceland

From the outside, it may look like the northern lights dance across the Icelandic sky every night. In Icelandair ads, planes fly through shimmering curtains in the sky. On social media, travelers stare in the green attach Above them. Lights are even on on some recycling bins in the capital, Reykjavik: “Keep Iceland Clean.”

In the past decade or so, the Northern Lights industrial complex has boomed in Iceland. Many rent a car and go out on their own, but there are no northern lights Big bus tours And the northern lights Minibus tours And the northern lights Super jeep tours. there Private guides And Boat trips. there Observatory base camp. So there is museum.

But the lights can be elusive.

“Tourists sometimes expect to ask themselves: 'What time is it running?'” said Björn Saivar Einarsson, a meteorologist at the Center for Weather Research. Iceland Meteorological Office, He laughs. “As if we had a key in the back room.”

This year, the letdowns have been particularly severe.

The northern lights, also called the aurora borealis, are most visible when there are solar flares, which are large explosions in the sun that send charged particles toward Earth. This year the sun It is approaching the peak of its 11-year activity cyclewhich some assume means displays may be hitting their peak, too.

But enhanced solar activity doesn't necessarily mean the northern lights will be brighter or more frequent, scientists wearily explain. Instead, they mostly mean that the lights can be seen further south than usual: in recent months, they have become visible in… ArizonaMissouri and southern England.

This doesn't mean much for Iceland.

In fact, Icelanders and scientists say, this winter is nothing special. Sometimes, the lights are there. Sometimes, they're not. Just as usual.

But nothing special, with the northern lights, it's still very special. And so the tourists keep coming.

Last month, I joined the fight. For four nights, I searched for the shimmer of the sky in and around Reykjavik.

I've booked my ticket to ride – this has been the best year yet, hasn't it? But as I learned more, and as my trip approached, my hopes diminished. Scientists and tour leaders kindly told me that the sky was cloudy and that solar activity seemed quiet.

“Just to let you know that the forecast is not looking very good,” said Inga Des Richter, Commercial Director at Icelanda tourism agency, wrote an email two days before planning to take a minibus trip with her Reykjavik flightsa tour operator.

“But this could change,” she added.

To find the lights, guides and travelers often rely on aurora forecasts, which cover cloud cover and solar activity. They check it constantly, like a bride having an outdoor wedding in mid-April.

Some forecasts are free, e.g Twilight forecast It is managed by the Iceland Meteorological Office or Iceland at nightWhich includes space weather. (Some are not – Aurora forecastwhich costs $12.99 per year, sends alerts.) Many people also turn to Facebook pageswhere enthusiasts hungrily exchange their scenes.

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But luck is everything.

“There is one thing that is less predictable about the northern lights, and that is the weather in the Arctic,” said John Mason, a global expert on the northern lights. “Aurora forecasts are hardly worth the paper they are written on.”

Guides work hard to explain the science and set expectations. Most companies offer a free rebooking option if the lights don't come on.

On my first night of twilight chasing, despite Ms. Richter's warnings, I joined a group of pregnant women on the Reykjavík Excursions minibus. For $88, I got a seat on the 19-person bus, which left the city's central bus station at 9:30 p.m.

For the next three to four hours, we were driving together through the Icelandic night. I either see something amazing with these strangers – the sky, covered in light – or I shiver with them shoulder to shoulder, awkward in the cold.

When we stopped on the way, guide Gudjon Gunnarsson set the mood early. “We go looking for lights,” he said, stressing the word “fishing.” “It’s like going out fishing in a lake.”

He drove for about 45 minutes, letting the glow of Reykjavik fade behind us. The city has a population of about 140,000, and there are no real skyscrapers, so light pollution is limited. Although the northern lights can appear above the city, they are best seen in complete darkness.

Then he stopped and consulted another guide.

“It's very cloudy here,” he told his flock. “So we'll keep driving.”

But as we continued driving, the clouds turned into thick fog, so thick that the moon almost disappeared.

Mr. Gunnarsson closed the main highway about an hour after we left Reykjavik. It was parked in the parking lot. Or maybe it was a side street? The darkness was so deep that I could only see the moonlight in the ocean, and then only after my eyes had adjusted.

We got down and stood loyally beside him, staring at the sky. Then one of the women pointed towards Reykjavik. Were those lights? (No, that was light pollution.)

Christophe Reinhard, 65, who owns a medical laser company and was visiting with his family from Paris, believes our search was like a safari. Sure, the desert is great, but it's so much better with lions. Or maybe this was more like a whale watch?

“Instead of a boat, you have a bus,” he said.

Mr. Gunnarsson watched the group stomp their feet and bend in the wind. Fifteen minutes. Then half an hour. The clouds were hanging thickly above. “There's nothing going on here, you see,” he said at last, chuckling. “It's one of those nights where you have to give up.”

Gunnarsson and other guides said tourists can get angry. It's rare, but it happens.

“It's the ride with our worst reviews,” said Eric Larimer, its director of digital marketing. Gray Line Icelanddaily tour and airport transfer company.

For some, the joy is in the search, even if nothing is found. A few of them focus on astronomy, and they often choose to stay in it Ranga Hotelwhich is located just off the main ring road (Route 1) near the southern coast of Iceland.

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The hotel looks unassuming – low-rise and wooden – but it is one of the most famous hotels in Iceland. (The Kardashians I stayed there. And so he did The Real Housewives of Orange County.) A standard room costs over $300, depending on the season.

But Ranga doesn't just cater to celebrities. It also attracts astronomy enthusiasts, who are tempted by its “Northern Lights Wake-up Call” service and its observatory with modern telescopes.

“One thing is to sell them,” said hotel owner Fredrik Palsson, speaking of the northern lights. “Another thing is to hand them over.”

About 20 years ago, before the northern lights industry took off, he commissioned a night security guard to watch the sky. The guard cocks his head every few minutes to look for an alarm flash. If he sees the lights, he will alert the guests.

The service aims to address one of the main problems with hunting the northern lights: they are typically only visible on winter nights, when it is very cold, very windy and very late.

“To be a good northern lights observer, you need the physique of an insomniac polar bear,” Dr. Mason said.

My room phone, unfortunately, remained silent. But I dreamed of lights—wonderful Wonka colors swirling, eerily, behind the Chrysler Building.

Mr. Palsson also built the observatory. He saw that even if the lights did not appear, the stars were still magnificent, and also rare for city dwellers. The hotel contracts astronomers to operate telescopes and explain the stars to guests. On my second night in Iceland, as twilight slid beneath the happy hour sky, I trudged the snow to the observatory with Sívar Helgi Bragason, Icelandic Science Connector Who leads the astronomy program.

He leaned over a child-sized telescope and focused it on the moon's craters. They seemed more visible than the hotel, just a short walk away. He said it was too early for the lights. That evening seemed very cloudy (to the ground) and very calm (to the sun).

Mr. Bragason joked that the lights could get in his way, creating a haze over the stars he really wanted to see. But tourists often come specifically to see them. Sometimes, when they wait impatiently, they may miss the real wonder, he said.

“I left this beautiful sky above you,” he said. “Basically, literally, another world opens up.”

Hotel Ranga pioneered Iceland's Northern Lights tourism industry: about two decades ago, people would come to Iceland for the long days of summer, and leave as daylight retreated further south.

“I found it a bit stupid at first,” admitted Mr Palsson, Ranga's owner, speaking about Northern Lights tourism.

But spreading tourism throughout the year makes sense. In part, this was an environmental concern. Tourists will flock to the country's extraordinary natural sites over the course of just a few months. It was also economical. When visitors leave Iceland, tourism jobs recede along with the sunlight.

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The northern lights, which can be seen reliably from September to March, have become the backbone of the country's winter branding, said Sven Birkir Björnsson, the company's marketing and communications director. Iceland Businesswhich promotes the country.

“In order to sell this cold and dark product, you have to have something to offer,” he said.

Now, although June, July and August are the busiest months, tourism has evened out across the seasons. In 2023, there will be about 1.1 million international visitors to Iceland during the aurora months, based on departures from Keflavik Airport, according to Data from the Iceland Tourism Board. From April to August, there were about 1.1 million as well.

on A decade agoWhen tourism overall to Iceland was lower, there were about 336,000 departures from the main airport in the colder months, and about 446,000 in the spring and summer.

Winter travelers are attracted by the lights, hot springs, glaciers, and icy waterfalls. It is also cheaper than the summer season.

Some try to visit the volcanoes, but the country recently warned tourists to avoid lava flows, as Iceland is experiencing an unusually active period of seismic activity. In January, lava flowed into a small town, and last week a volcano erupted just 40 minutes ago near the Blue Lagoon thermal springs, one of the country's biggest attractions.

Near midnight on my last night, Sunday, I drove to… Grotta Lighthousea popular place on the outskirts of Reykjavik.

A few die-hard experts have warned me – a lot of tourists go there because it's darker than most of Reykjavik, but then don't think to turn off their headlights. It was also raining, which greatly reduced my chance of seeing the lights.

But I only had three hours before I had to leave for my pre-dawn flight. I felt a little desperate, a little dizzy. I parked the car and approached two people who were sitting in the rain on a wet wall, looking at the water in the dark. I climbed over the seaweed and introduced myself. I asked him what it would mean to them if the lights suddenly appeared?

“It will be a bit like the cherry on top,” said Catherine Norburn, 29, who was visiting from England.

She and her husband were scheduled to fly out the next morning. They haven't seen the lights yet.

Her husband, Rhys Norburn, 29, said: “We don't have high hopes, but it's now or never.”

We didn't see the lights. I didn't see them later, even after they pulled off the highway halfway between Reykjavik and the airport at 3:30 a.m., half convinced by a bright cloud.

But I spent more time looking at the sky. This is a marvel.

In New York City, where I live, the night sky blooms orange-purple. In Iceland, the darkness of the night is just that, darkness. The clouds roll in, breaking the deep blue. The stars really shine. The northern lights or no northern lights, were still cosmically beautiful.