Lights on

On my way through the night this 400 km (240miles) distance from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon in mid-March, I witnessed the northern lights in more abundance and strength than ever before. I took out the camera to record this intense spectacle in all its impressive beauty.

Then I began thinking about what they really are, the northern lights, or aurora borealis.

French philosopher Pierre Gassendi named the phenomenon in 1621 after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the purple-winged Greek god of the north wind. 

This natural light display in the sky, in the high-latitude regions, is caused by the collision of electrically-charged particles with gaseous particles in the high-altitude atmosphere 80 km (50 miles) above us. The charged particles originate in the magnetosphere and solar winds and are directed by the earth’s magnetic field into the atmosphere. 

The first written account of norðurljós, which is what the northern lights are called in Icelandic, can be found in old Norse literature, in the chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá, dating back to 1230. The chronicler had heard about the phenomenon from a compatriot returning from Greenland. He gives three possible explanations for the northern lights: the ocean was surrounded by a vast fire; the sun’s flares could reach the night; or perhaps the glaciers stored energy, which eventually caused them to become fluorescent. 

How do you capture the northern lights in a picture? First you need a clear, dark sky. Checking out the Icelandic Met Office’s aurora forecast on vedur.is should be your first step in planning the perfect shot. Next, you need a sturdy tripod that won’t shake in the Icelandic wind and during long exposures. Then, put a wide-angle lens on your camera and focus it at infinity. 

The northern lights that so impressed me that night vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. 

Páll Stefánsson, photographer

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