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.

The Faroe Islands and Viking Invasions

I’m not long back from my latest trip around Scandinavia. Last year, I was given the opportunity to chase the total solar eclipse, which was going to occur on March 20th 2015. Totality was only going to be viewable from land in two places though, Svalbard and Faroe Islands. The original plan was to head to Svalbard, but time of year meant that the weather could be hit and miss. For the sake of mobility and the dangers from polar bears, it was decided to switch to the Faroe Islands instead.

The trip would start in Norway, around Alta in Finnmark, where I was to help out a little with the final tour of the Aurorahunters season. It was a little more low-key than my full guiding in Iceland last November, but it was good to be part of the Aurorahunters team again. As usual, we would be chasing the Aurora Borealis, which in late winter, essentially means looking for gaps in the weather in much of Europe.

Of course, things didn’t quite go to plan, and we fell foul of the strike by Norwegian Airlines pilots, forcing us to make some last-minute decisions and changes to make sure we made it to the boat for the Faroes several days later. When I arrived in the Alta Commune, there was little snow on the ground, but that changed overnight, so it was lucky we decided to go on a hunt the first night and saw a nice display over a canyon and nearby mountains.

To get to the Faroe islands, meant travelling by ship from Newcastle, requiring flights from Alta via Oslo and Gatwick. The ship was to be our base for several days, including the three days travel, there and back, leaving us a few days to explore the islands. The Faroe Islands are a group of self-governing islands (and also part of Denmark) situated pretty much half way between Iceland and the Shetland Islands. The location pretty much offers a picture of the likely weather. Right in the path of the gulf stream, the weather pretty much matches that of the UK and Iceland, with the winds being closer to the strength in Iceland (and also Shetland), than the UK, in other words, potentially very windy and wet, with a lot of clouds. Obviously not the best weather for viewing a solar eclipse. However, as is so often the case, just like in the UK and Iceland, the prevailing weather meant that the scenery was pretty spectacular, with dramatic, flat-topped mountains, betraying their volcanic origin.

Also travelling on the ship, were a band of Danish and Icelandic vikings from the “Berserk Vikings“, who of course invaded the dance floor on the first night, doing recent (and not so recent) dance moves, while dressed as vikings. They were actually travelling to the Faroe Islands to hold a Solar Eclipse Viking Market at the Hoyvik Outdoor Museum, on the outskirts of the capital, Tórshavn. The aim was to raise funds for the future events in teh Faroe Islands, as well as having some fun.

Despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to experience the full glory of the eclipse or the strong geomagnetic storm that occurred during our visit, but just witnessing the sudden darkness and the cultural experience with the modern-day vikings was enough. I was even part of one of their ceremonies, thanking each other for helping to make the market a cultural success and that experience will live with me, along with the mental picture of the Faroe Islands landscape.

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.

First Visit to Iceland – The Land of Ice and Fire

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Iceland. I travelled with Andy Keen, founder and Director of Aurorahunters, a company who has made it their business to chase the “Tricky Lady” in northern Scandinavia, as well as the company of his son, Alex and three fellow travellers. I first travelled with them to Finland around 18 months ago, then I visted the Lofoten Islands and Finnmark with them in March this year.
This trip was more of a scouting trip, a way of putting out feelers for the potential of Iceland. Also, the primary target wasn’t the Northern Lights this time, but the Perseid meteor shower. Of course, who could pass up the chance of Aurora also, even if the hours of darkness were limited?
After an early morning flight, we arrived at Keflavik and just had enough time to travel to our apartment in the suburban area of Reyjavkik and a quick cuppa, before we headed out on our first trip. Unusually, we were going to be doing some tours with a local agency, instead of making our own way, mainly because we were a little clueless about Iceland. To be honest, we weren’t even sure it would live up to the hype. It’s one of those destinations that everyone talks about and there is always a slight niggling concern that it isn’t going to live up to expectations.
We hadn’t realised, quite how large the company that was helping us was. They were called Reykjavik Excursions and it seems they are pretty much the largest tourist company in Iceland. Despite that though, they went out of their way to collect us from our apartment (which we later found out was very unusual).

I’m not normally one for cities, but Reykjavik was quite interesting and the quick tour helped us to orientate ourselves to some degree, visiting a number of attractions, such as Perlan (The Pearl), the Sun Voyager sculpture, Hallgrimskirkja and a number of other places.

That evening, we visited the Blue Lagoon and yes, it is very blue. It is also in a geothermally active area (just like much of Iceland), with many smaller pools outside the main complex and many volcanic features. The rocks, intermingled with the pools, some of which are quite large, make for a very dramatic landscape.

Probably one of the more dramatic areas we visited, was the glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón, in the southeast of Iceland. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in the country and also in Europe and the lagoon has a large number of icebergs, which have calved from the glacier. Also, many seabirds, such as skua and terns were flying around, with common seals swimming amongst the icebergs, while observing all the visitors.

We spent several nights looking and trying to photograph the Perseid meteors, but they were more than a little shy, we did however strike lucky with a faint (but visible) aurora, which is almost certainly the first sighting of the season, a full week before the locals would have expected. Then again, they probably weren’t mad enough to be out at some ridiculous hour, when there was barely two hours of darkness.

The final day, we decided to forego the coach (partly due to camera issues – they don’t like volcanic lakes) and strike out on our own to pick and choose what we wanted to see on the Golden Circle. Our first stop was Thingvellir, the site of the old parliament and visible rift gorge. This is a site where the theory of plate tectonics, becomes reality and the forces of nature are clearly visible. The perfect site for a seat of power. Next stop was the awesome power of the Gulfoss falls (Golden Falls), before finally finishing off the daylight hours at the site of Geysir, in the company of geothermally active, bioluminescent pools and the might of the geyser of Strokkur (churn). Not quite the same power of Geysir, when it is active, but then Geysir isn’t currently active.

Iceland certainly lived up to expectations and we will almost certainly visit again, that is if a certain volcano by the name of Bárðarbunga allows. Two days after we left the island, Bárðarbunga started showing signs of unrest and at the time of writing, has opened up a dyke more than 40 km long and has possibly had some small eruptions under Vatnajokull. If events progress how they could, then it could put on a spectacular display, that could have the potential for much disruption, not just in Iceland, but also in Europe. I can thoroughly recommend Iceland as a travel destination and if you want to chase the Northern Lights, then there is no-one better than Aurorahunters. Also, look out for more nature-based excursions in the coming months and not just the hunt for the “Tricky Lady”.

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.