We have all heard of the beautiful Northern lights which are often called Aurora borealis, or Aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. We’ve seen them on breathtaking pictures but most of us have no idea what they actually are.
What are the Northern Lights exactly? And why do they only happen in the Northern or Southern hemisphere?
The first important thing to understand is that the Earth has a magnetic field. Specifically in the South and North, which is why a compass will point North. As we know the sun emits certain charged particles, such as electrons, and these are blown towards the earth by solar wind. Once these particles hit the Earth’s magnetic field, they will largely be reflected but some will enter earth’s atmosphere and will follow this magnetic field to their point of origin. This point of origin will either be the northern or southern magnetic pole. The electrons then hit Nitrogen or Oxygen atoms in the atmosphere and transfer their energy to those atoms. When this happens, they excite the electrons in the atoms, which increases their energy. However, this excess energy has to be released somewhere and it does this in the form of light. This can be seen on the image below
Image credit: NASA
From where do they get their distinct colors?
Northern Lights can take the form of many colors such as, purple, red, yellow, pink and green. The reason the colors can vary is because it depends on which altitude the energy is released, and gases vary according to their altitude. For example, the most common color- a sort of yellowish-green is produced by oxygen molecules located about 95km (60 miles) above the earth. The red ones are produced by high-altitude oxygen gases up to 320 km (200 miles) above the earth and when blue or purple aurora’s are formed, they have been produced by Nitrogen particles. A fun fact is that Earth is not the only planet with Northern Lights. Saturn has also recorded Aurora’s and appear as a red color due to Saturn’s atmosphere being made out of Nitrogen and unlike Earth’s aurora’s they will last for several days.
When and where can you see them best?
What researchers have discovered is that the aurora activity is cyclic and peaks roughly every 11 years. The last peak period was in 2013. The best place to see the Northern Lights are in countries in the northern hemisphere and Iceland is a perfect example. They are always present but can only be seen when it is dark outside, which is why the best period to view them is from September – April. Furthermore, due to the light pollution in cities they are more visible outside of the city. Moreover, you are not always able to see the lights even if there are no clouds in the sky. Because of this it is important to assess the conditions every day before trying to view them in the night. We, at Gateway to Iceland, try our best to assess each day for preferrable conditions which is why sometimes Northern Lights tours will have to be cancelled. So please understand that even when all the signs point towards Northern Lights, it is never guaranteed. It is a natural phenomena which can behave very unpredictably, just like the icelandic weather.
SEE OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS TOURS!
By: Sólveig Seibitz
National Park Thingvellir: the Mid-Atlantic Ridge
Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, this means that Iceland lies on two tectonic plates, namely the Eurasian and the North American plate. This continental drift can be seen in Thingvellir (“þingvellir”) which is part of our Hot Golden Circle tour and can be seen on the image below. These two tectonic plates move apart or against each other and when this happens, earthquakes, as well as reactivation of old volcanoes and creation of new ones, occur. Iceland hosts 130 volcanoes of which 30 are currently active. Since the middle ages, a third of all the lava that has covered the earth’s surface has erupted in Iceland and a volcano will erupt every 5-10 years.
Has Bárðarbunga and Holuhraun become more famous than Eyjafjallajökull?
The most recent eruption was at Holuhraun near the Bardabunga (“Bárðarbunga”) volcano which was erupting from August 2014 until March 2015. Yet the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, was probably the most media covered eruption of all time because it caused a massive disruption in North-European air traffic. Around 20 countries were forced to close their airspace traffic which affected around 10 million travellers. This volcano can be seen on our South Coast and Glacier lagoon tour.
Laki – the catastrophic eruption
The Eyjafjallajökull eruption was not the only time an Icelandic eruption affected Europe. It is even said that an Icelandic eruption around 200 years ago may have triggered the French revolution. The volcano responsible is named Laki and erupted in 1783. A massive amount of outpour in gasses lead to catastrophic consequences. It is estimated that around a quarter of population died as well as 50% of . The gasses emitted from this volcano resulted in a thick haze across Western Europe. Leading to extreme weather conditions, an increase in death rates and an increase in poverty all across Europe. The effects can also be traced to North America and it is said that it even weakened African and Indian monsoon circulations.
Vestmannaeyjar aka The Westman Islands
Although volcanoes can have disastrous consequences there can sometimes be positive ones as well. A volcano created a new island in 1967 named Surtsey, located close to the Westmann Islands, where scientists have been able to observe how life on a new island develops. Surtsey is one of the islands that can be seen in the picture below of the Westmann islands (in the top right corner). When the sky is especially clear, you can see Surtsey from a distance on our South Coast Tour.
Volcanoes have also inspired many literary masterpieces. An example would be Jules Verne’s Journey to the center of the Earth where the protagonist finds the entrance to the center of the earth on Snæfellsjökull. This volcano can be seen on our Snæfellsnes tour.
Last but not least: Hekla
Our Hekla Valley tour focuses especially on volcanic activity in Iceland where we visit the Hekla museum and the volcano Hekla can be seen. It is one of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes and was known in the Middle Ages as the “gateway to hell”. The last time Hekla erupted was in February 2000 – causing little distractions.
Volcanoes have always been an important and prevalent part of Icelandic history and volcanic activity can be traced to the old sagas and literary pieces. Clearly Iceland didn’t get its name the land of fire and ice for nothing.
By: Solveig Seibitz
In recent years, Iceland’s beer has been globally praised and the culture surrounding it has grown immensely. It is the most consumed alcoholic beverage in Iceland, and eight out of ten of the most sold brands are Icelandic. But what makes the Icelandic beer so good?
The secret lies in Iceland’s amazing water quality. However, this beer culture is fairly new because beer was actually illegal from 1915 until 1989. Initially a referendum was held in which all alcoholic beverages were banned but slowly the ban was lifted for wines and spirits yet beer remained illegal until March 1st 1989. March 1st has now become the National Beer Day and is even celebrated every year. Since the legalization many breweries have emerged, the two largest are Vífilfell and Ölgerðinn, making around 93% and around 14 other microbreweries exist, in total they make around 60 different kinds of beers which is an astonishing number for a country with such a small population.
Icelandic Northern Lights and Whale beer
Gateway to Iceland offers a private West Iceland tour which can include a visit to the Steðja microbrewery if desired; this brewery is also producing a beer flavored with a whale which is considered to be one of the most controversial beers. Guests will have a guided tour followed by the opportunity to taste several of their beers.
By: Sólveig Seibitz