Iceland – The Land of Ice and Fire

Last night, I finally got around to writing an article on Aurora Photography, so I thought with another trip to Iceland coming up, it was about time I wrote another blog post about one of the most dramatic countries for landscapes. In the meantime, anyone who would like to know a bit more about photographing the Aurora, please feel free to read the article.

Photographing the Aurora Borealis

I first visited Iceland in August 2014 and I have since visited in a few different months, including November and March. It’s never warm in Iceland, it’s simply too windy to ever be warm, but in August, at least during the day, it is comfortable when the sun is out. November is a bit like a typical UK winter, cold and wet, but even then, it is possible to get some sunny days. March on the other hand is generally cold and snowy, turning to rain and at times alternating between the two. Again though, it is possible to get some later winter sun and out of the wind, it can actually be pleasant at times.

Iceland sits above the Mid Atlantic Ridge, above a magma plume. This is what gives it its volcanic nature and why the volcanic activity is so high. It is much more accessible now, than it was in times gone by, as flights are available from many UK airports, as well as Europe and the US. The flight is actually quite short, but it is even possible to travel by ferry, even if the seas can be a bit rough at times. It is the home to the largest waterfall in Europe, as well as the largest glacier in Europe, but it actually straddles two continents, with the capital and the western third being on the North American continent and the eastern two thirds or so are on the Eurasian continent.

I’ve only visited the south of the island so far, although I would like to travel up to the north, where it can be a lot harsher. Even in the south though, you can get a variety of landscapes (all volcanic of course). Around Reykjavik International Airport and the rest of the Reyjkjanes peninsula, it is relatively flat, with a few protuberances from smallish volcanoes. On the other hand, on the eastern side, you have the true giants, with the volcanoes of Bardabunga (responsible for the largest eruption for a few centuries in 2014/15) and Oraefajokull. Most people land in Keflavik, where the Reykjavik International airport is situated, before travelling east (if they have enough time), but there are many interesting locations to visit and stay along the way.

Reykjavik and the Reykjanes Peninsula

The Reykjanes peninsula is the most densely populated area of Iceland and includes the capital Reykjavik and larger towns, such as Keflavik/Reykjanesbær. It is also the home of the Blue Lagoon and the Krysuvik hot mud pools. Also along the main road from Keflavik to Reykjavik is the Reykjanes lava field.

The Blue Lagoon gets large numbers of visitors, but it is actually man-made. It makes use of the natural thermal activity in the area to heat the pools and allows the benefits from the natural minerals. Although you need to pay to get into the complex itself, you can walk around the many surrounding pools and marvel at the aquamarine colour of the water.

Also not far from Keflavik, is the geothermal area of Krýsuvík. There are a number of hiking trails around the area, with opportunities to view steaming mud pools and mud volcanoes. There are also a number of thermal springs and small lakes.

As you head towards Reykjavik, the road travels along the northern coast of the peninsula, with views across the Reykjanes lava field and the Atlantic ocean beyond. There are a number of little inlets and pools and it is a haven for seabirds.

Close to Reykjanes lighthouse, you have the area of Gunnuhver. This is another area with volcanic mud pools. The water here is acidic, so the rock has been dissolved to form the mud.

To get beyond Reykjanes along the main road, you have to travel beyond Reykjavik, but there are also some interesting sites within Reykjavik itself. It is also one of the harbours from where you can go whale watching. It isn’t a big city and once parked, it is easy enough to walk around most places. The harbour area is actually quite a good place to park and while you’re there, you can visit one of the nearby cafe restaurants to sample some fish and chips. Also nearby is the sculpture Sólfar (Sun Voyager). This is a large steel sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason, in the form of the veins of a viking ship. Sadly, he died before it was completed. Also in Reykjavik, is the cathedral, Hallgrimskirkja and the Harpa concert hall, especially if you enjoy architecture. On the outskirts, there is Perlan (The Pearl), but there are also other museums, if science and technology aren’t really your thing.

Pink sunset, with rising mist and steam from a fumerole near to Thingvellir.

The Golden Circle

Ok, so it isn’t exactly an area to avoid the crowds, but there is a good reason for that. It contains a number of the most popular natural attractions (as well as a few less natural ones if you join one of the organised tours). As we’re travelling vaguely west to east I’ll start with Thingvellir.

The Thingvellir National Park is a large area surrounding a rift zone. This is the active fault area, where it is possible to see the results of the two continents as they drift apart. While countless other fault lines are present in Iceland, this is probably the most accessible and most visible. Even a large lake, Thingvelivatn has formed as a result of the rifting. Thingvellir actually isn;’t so much the rif itself, but the location of the ancient assembly (Althing in Iceland and the site where the Althing sat. Above the Althing fields, are sculptures of many of the leaders of the time. The area is a natural ampitheatre. Nearby is the gorge where the rift is visible.

Heading west through to Thingvellir and you are on your way to the next attraction on the Golden Circle, but on a dirt track nearby is a blue waterfall called Bruarfoss, which is worth a visit, if you can find it!. Geysir hot Springs are the next stop on the official Golden Circle. The largest of the geysers is only active after large earthquakes and rarely erupts, but Strokkur is active every few minutes. It is actually in the larger Haukadalur geothermal area.

After Geysir, you have Gullfoss (golden falls). This is a large series of waterfalls on the immense Hvítá river. When the sun is shining, a rainbow shines over the falls, but the spray from the falls and the noise produced is something to behold. The river contains a lot of energy and was earmarked for a large water-powered plant, but is now protected. In winter months, part of the area are cordoned off for safety, as it gets very icy. Even in the summer, care must be taken, as the rocks are very slippery from all the water.

As you head south from Gulfoss, towards the town of Selfoss, there is another nearby waterfall called Hjalparfoss. This is actually a double waterfall, but the road is not kept as clear from snow and ice as some of the more major roads.

Selfoss to Vik

Once at Selfoss, you are back on the main Route 1 ring road that goes all the way around the island. Heading east, there are a few more of the more popular attractions, including two more large and interesting waterfalls.

The first of these falls is Seljalandsfoss. This is an unusual waterfall, where it is is possible to walk behind (as long as you don’t mind getting a bit wet if windy). Not far away, just a five minute walk, is the smaller grotto-style waterfall Gljúfrabúi and an area of grass, giving a view of the escarpment.

Next stop is the larger waterfall of Skogafoss. This is one of the taller waterfalls in Iceland and like Gullfoss, if the sun is shining from the right direction, you will be able to see a rainbow. In addition to the falls themselves, there is also a path that takes you above the waterfall and beyond to some more smaller falls.

Just as the road starts climbing, before getting to Vik, there is a side road that takes you to Reynisfjara (Black Beach). In stormy conditions, the waves can be spectacular and ther eare many rogue waves ready to catch out any tourists that may not be paying attention. At best, you may get a soaking, but if you aren’t careful, it is easily possible to get washed out to sea. Just off the coast, are a series of rock formations that can make interesting coastal landscapes. There is a similar black sand beach on the other side of Vik, near a large roadside cafe and garage.

Wideangle view of Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon at the base of Vatnajokull.

Beyond Vik

After leaving Vik, the surrounding terrain starts to get more mountainous and in the colder months, the risk of snow and blizzards increases. You are now entering the land of the giants. Katla, near to Skogafoss and Vik is big, but is still small compared the volcanoes under the Vatnajokull glacier. At first, it might seem that the large volcanoes are some way off, but they have  along reach. Bardabunga in particular is known for sending out underground rivers of lava for tens of kilometres. It did this in 2014/15, eventually erupting far to the north, to form lava fountains up to 10 metres high, eventually erupting for six months. This was the largest eruption, since the 18th century, when a similar event occurred, called the Skaftar fires, this time travelling south, into the region now known as Laki, creating the Eldhraun lava fields. About one hour out of Vik and you are surrounded by these lava fields, but there are also some lakes and waterfalls scattered about. Just to the north is the Skaftafell National Park, with further waterfalls and glacial lagoons.

It is at this point that Vatnjokull starts to dominate the landscape, with several glacial tongues visible from the road. This is the biggest glacier in Europe and if the skies were clear when you were first approaching to land, you would have been able to see it as the dominant feature. Keep going and you will reach Jökulsárlón. This is the famous glacial lagoon and in the main season, trips are on offer to get closer to the edge of the glacier, where you get the iceberg calving. In March, most of the lagoon is filled with icebergs. On the opposite side of the road, where the lagoon meets teh Atlantic, you have Diamond beach, where it looks like massive diamonds have just been strewn about by giants who had become bored with looking at them. If you want a slightly less busy view of the glacier though, then head back west for a couple of minutes and visit Fjallsárlón, another smaller, quieter lagoon. There are also even more out of the way lagoons in the Skaftafell area.

Aurora Borealis

The southern coast of Iceland is quite well populated, with many small towns and villages. This means there is a certain amount of light pollution. However, head away from the main ring road and it is possible to find some areas without pollution. This is particularly so in some of the hiking areas, but these roads may also be closed outside of summer or require four wheel drive vehicles. There are some very nice locations for shooting the Aurora though and if the display is good, then light pollution is less of a problem. In fact the bigger problem is the weather. Whenever you go, 80% of the time it is cloudy and rain and snow is common. Although it can be cold and windy though, you don’t get the extreme temperatures of northern Scandinavia, as Iceland, like the UK and western Norway, is warmed by the Gulf Stream.

The advantage of Iceland over Scandinavia, for viewing the Aurora, is due to the position of the magnetic north pole. This means the Aurora is pushed further south than in mainland Europe and only in North America is it to be viewable further south, The best time to see the Aurora, is during a new moon, but the full moon can add atmosphere and make for a much more interesting image. Visiting around one of the equinoxes may also increase chances, but in general, it is down to luck and knowing the forecasts for both terrestrial and solar weather.

Iceland is an interesting country to visit. It offers cultural breaks, as well as dramatic landscapes and natural phenomena. If you are wondering if it lives up to the hype, then rest assured that it does.

Guiding in Iceland

It’s been a little late in coming, but it’s past time to provide an update about my last trip to Iceland. Back in November, I helped out Aurorahunters, guiding for them during a tour to southern Iceland, in combination with Alexander Keen. As usual, the tour had an astronomical theme, but instead of just trying to search out the Northern Lights, we were also looking for the Leonid meteor showers.

Just to make it interesting, we also had to keep one eye on the volcanic eruption, associated with the largest of the Icelandic Volcanoes, Bardabunga. Since mid-August, the volcano had been showing signs of unrest and in September erupted quite a distance to the north of the main cone, in Holuhraun. Even now, it is still continuously erupting. Just before we travelled, some parts of Iceland were experiencing high levels of pollution, so we had to keep a careful watch on the wind direction. Luckily, there weren’t any issues and the tour went without any major hitches.

We arrived a couple of days before the clients, so that we could do some last-minute scouting and make any necessary adjustments to the programme. We had a number of meetings with providers we were working with to make sure things ran smoothly and also visited some of the locations we would be taking the clients to, to ensure there weren’t any hitches. The weather wasn’t looking the best, but then we were in Iceland, so in true Aurorhunters style, the programme was going to be an advisory, rather than a solid plan. Largely though, we did stick to the programme we made in the last days prior to the tour starting. Also, we didn’t have any of the major storms that Iceland is renowned for.

We were staying in Keflavik, not far from the airport and it was therefore a quick trip to collect the VW Transporter before meeting the clients on the day of arrival. After time to settle in, we did the usual welcome meeting with information on the Aurora and Leonids.

The clients had a good taste of Southern Iceland, including geysers and waterfalls. We were also lucky enough to experience the best Aurora display I’ve seen, with movement and pulsing so fast, it was impossible to capture in stills. It literally covered the whole sky and was very spectacular.

A combination of problems with my main camera body and making sure the clients were able to photograph what they wanted, meant I didn’t get many shots myself, but it was an enjoyable experience and the tour was a success, despite working in a largely unfamiliar location, despite the scouting trip in the previous August, without backup from other members of the team over in Norway.


Icelandic Aurora

Aurora Borealis over the Lofoten Islands.

It’s already been a spectacular start to the Aurora season, with bright and fast-moving displays up at 70 degrees North. Andy and the Aurorahunters team have been able to capture some more memorable shots and have been able to find the “Tricky Lady” on five occasions in the first week.

Northern Norway, has its own charm and remarkable scenery, but if you want drama, then look no further than Iceland, with its dramatic scenery, combining volcanic mountains, geysers and of course the Atlantic Ocean.

In the southwest, you have the capital, Reykjavik, with its cultural charm and landmarks, such as Hallgrimskirkja and “Sun Voyager”, as well as boat trips from its harbour. A bit further afield, there are the delights of the Golden Circle, including the natural spectacles of Strökkur, Gulfoss and Thingvellir. But may be you fancy a bit of relaxation? Then try the trip to the Blue Lagoon, with its soothing pools.

Jökulsárlón and Vatnajökull.

In the southeast, you have Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and to say it is big, would be a vast understatement. The sheer scale of it is staggering. Underneath, it hides some of the highest mountain peaks in Iceland, including the huge volcano Bardarbunga.

Why not visit some of these fascinating locations, along with many more, with the Aurorahunters team. Also on offer are a boat trip, hunting for the Aurora – Aurorahunting with a difference, and a hunt for the Leonid Meterors. There will also of course, be the obligatory standard Aurorahunt, if anything in Iceland can be descrived as standard of course. A chance to see a natural phenomenon, one on the bucket list of many, against one of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth.

The tour is on the 13-18th November, with the Aurora Borealis and Leonid meteor shower as the highlights. See the Aurorahunters website for the full itinerary.

In Search of the Northern Lights

Last week I was able to hunt for the Northern Lights. I had seen them previously near to Tromsø in Northern Norway in December 2011 and more fortuitously near to Inverness in October 2012, but I was in search of a more spectacular display. While the previous views were an experience to remember, I wanted to be able to see the colours with my naked eye, not just in the resulting photographs.

After some searching, I had decided to opt for Northern Finland, as while I have liked Norway since living in Oslo and had a certain affinity for the country, Finland offered better weather, which can be the enemy of the Aurora hunter, with a much better chance of clear weather, than Tromsø could offer, due to its assault by the gulf stream weather systems. I also decided to travel with a company called Aurorahunters.

While Aurorahunters is a fairly new company, having been established just two years ago, they are fast growing in their reputation. The company is owned by Andy Keen, with support from Marti Rikkonen, a nature photographer with many years experience photographing the nature of Finland, including the Aurora Borealis. Operations are ably managed by Andy’s son Alex and they have the support of other seasoned aurora hunters.

One thing that struck me on the first night, was the enthusiasm that they all showed. It was obvious that they would do everything possible not just ta find the Aurora, but also the gaps in the cloud cover. And therein lay the problem. We arrived from our over night stop in Helsinki to see heavy cloud cover with constant snow. The plan was to hunt for the Aurora on three of our four nights and the decision was made by Andy to call it a night, which meant everything was resting on the only three nights remaining. Of course, that was also the best night for predicted Aurora, but there simply wasn’t any chance of finding a gap in the cloud cover.

Aurora near Suolisjärvi.

The second night also didn’t look promising at first glance, as it was snowing yet again in Inari. However, the weather forecasts were suggesting that clearer weather was coming from the east, across the Russian border, so our team headed northeast, towards the Norwegian border south of Kirkenes. After a few brief glimpses of activity, just south of the border and some tantalising glimpses of cloud-free skies, we continued north, eventually crossing the border into Norway. However, as we got closer to Kirkenes, it became obvious that the clouds weren’t going to clear, so we headed back to our original location in Finland. Just before we reached our destination, a fox crossed the road in front of us, which excited Alex, as previous sightings had preceded good views of the Aurora. There us a Saami legend that Aurora is produced by the snow that is flung up by the tail of the fox and the Finnish name for the Aurora, Revontulet, actually means Tail of the Fox. It did indeed seem like an omen too, as when we approached our chosen spot, the clouds started to clear and an Auroral band became visible. It wasn’t the most spectacular of displays, but it was as strong as anything I’d seen and it had some structure to it. The Tricky Lady had made her appearance at last.

Northern shore of Lake Inari.

The third night also looked less than promising. Not only had the cloud returned after clearing for a time during the day, it had started snowing again and the temperature plummeted from around -8 C to -14 C. This time we headed east with Andy, towards the Russian border, as again it looked like the skies may be clearing from the east. As we drove, the temperature dropped further to -22.5 C until we reached the border post, after a slight detour to visit the Saami church at Nellim. We stopped for some hot cranberry juice, courtesy of Marti and his family and some biscuits, until we got a call that Aurora had been spotted on a nearby bridge across the Paatsjoki river, which forms the border between Norway and Russia after leaving Finland. While the temperature rose near the river, a mist had started to form, making the atmosphere damp and bitterly cold. It also masked the Aurora, making it difficult to see, even though it was just about visible.

Aurora near Inari.

I spent the final day photographing the landscape around the western end of Lake Inari, as the skies had cleared, producing a beautiful dawn light on the snow-covered lake. It was still -16 C outside and I needed something to cover my face, so went shopping ready for the final night, which was set to be even colder. Yet again, the snow came in, in the afternoon around Inari, but it looked like it would be clearer at the Norwegian border. We started off heading north, this time guided by Marti, but after travelling a short distance, Marti changed his mind. After a quick phone call to a friend, he told us the skies had cleared, so we headed northwest instead. Along the way, he regaled us with some stories of his time as a nature story, including a story of a beautiful bear, which had us in stitches. In fact we were concentrating so much on the stories, we almost missed the main event. One of the fellow guests nudged me and asked if it was an Aurora to the right. I had a look and thought that it was an Aurora just poking out over a hill. We frantically tried to get Marti’s attention, who found a clearing in the trees to next to the road, switched off the car lights and we were met with one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. Not only was it an Aurora, what I thought had been a hill, was in fact the sky, with a huge arc. As we watched, the arc was moving quite quickly, making the perfect subject for a timelapse movie. We viewed the same arc from two more locations along the road, before heading back to the hotel, ready for our early start to the airport the next morning. Marti had another surprise for us though. When we were about 20 kilometres from Inari, he decided to head off on a small side road. By this time the temperature had dropped to -28.5 C, but the display we saw was well worth the extreme temperature, which even challenged our thermal suits. We didn’t really feel the cold though, as the adrenaline was rushing through our veins. The arc was forming right across the road, almost above our heads, in a beautiful curve and the movement and changing forms were otherworldly. The Tricky Lady had done us proud.

For anyone who wants to see the Northern Lights, then I can thoroughly recommend Aurorahunters. The whole team exudes enthusiasm and is willing to go that extra mile to find the Aurora. That is probably why they still have a 100% record in finding the Aurora for each group.

In Search of the Northern Lights

It’s almost twelve years now, since I moved to live and work in Oslo, the capital city of Norway. It was probably on my way back from my first return home after the move, that I got chatting to one of the other passengers. I remember remarking that I’d like to see the Northern Lights, without really giving it too much thought. He of course said that it would have to be a winter trip, which had I thought about it, was pretty obvious really. Although I did see something while walking home from work late once in the early hours, I never really got the chance, as the contract had to end earlier than expected.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally got my chance. I only arrived back on Monday, in the early hours, so the photos are only just ready, but I was able to spend six days in Tromsø, in the far north. Because it’s so far north of the arctic circle, the sun doesn’t rise for almost two months, giving a strange pale blue light (when it’s clear) during the day. At this time of year in early December, it lasts for around two hours.

Unfortunately however, we arrived to rain and strong winds, which pretty much lasted for the first four days. The chances of seeing the lights didn’t look too promising, but by the thursday, the day that had been booked, the forecast was for clearing skies. Just as we left though, the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse again, with a heavy downpour. Not in the slightest bit perturbed though, our guide headed east, towards the Finnish border, where the weather should be clearer, due to the shelter of the mountains. We had booked our trip with Kjetil Skogli, the man who took out Joanna Lumley during a British television production a few years ago. When I mentioned in the Visit Tromsø information office who I’d booked with, the response was “He’s the expert, you’ll definitely see them”, which was encouraging. Our first stop was just over an hour away from Tromsø and the skies looked a lot clearer, with increasing glimpses of the moon. As we came off the main road near Seljelvenes, towards the northeast, the sky looked to be glowing. After waiting for some time, the glow came closer, eventually forming distinct bands of white, against the dark sky. Light pollution was non-existent, allowing the best views of the stars and the moon was behind us, well away from the aurora that was forming.

While the display wasn’t the best, as solar activity had been low since the beginning of October, it was certainly an experience. They didn’t quite look as I’d imagined though. You see all the photos and imagine that the aurorae will be a mass of greens and reds, perhaps mixed in with some purples and blues if you’re lucky, but they were essentially white. I could just about make out some red colouration, but the greens just weren’t visible with the naked eye. Of course, again, had I thought more about it, I would have remembered that the human eye is pretty poor at distinguishing colour in the dark. Some people have better colour perception in the dark than others and one of the others could make out a slight green tinge. Had the display been stronger, then there would have been a greater chance of seeing the colours, but I was able to get a couple of useable photographs. Judging by my settings and comparing them to other photos, I would estimate, that a strong display could have been as much as ten times brighter. It wasn’t long before the skies clouded over again though and each of the subsequent stops failed to reveal any better displays before the clouds caught up with us.

Mildly satisfied that I’d at least seen them, I now hoped for clearer skies during the day, so that I could photograph Tromsø in the best light possible. Friday was a complete washout though with heavy rain and more strong winds, which later turned to sleet with occasional snow flurries, resulting in a spattering of snow on Friday night. Saturday was another story however. The skies cleared, with much colder weather, resulting in some of the best light I’ve ever seen for photography. It’s difficult to describe, but the closest I can come, is by describing it as a turquise blue light, tinged with pinks and purples, as the invisible sun reflects off the few clouds. As dusk approaches in the afternoon, the colour darkens to give an even stranger, almost surreal light.

All in all, my trip to northern Norway was a success, but I know want to try seeing a stronger display and especially perfect my technique of photographing the Northern Lights, which left a bit to be desired.