Iceland in the fall has some great things to see that cannot be seen in the summer, all having to do with lights. To two that you want to take in are the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) and the John Lennon Peace Tower. I was on the Overseas Adventure Travel trip, Untamed Iceland, in October 2016. In addition to seeing the fall colors, these two “light shows” were high on my Iceland to-do list. I did not return home disappointed.
The Northern Lights are really active twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. The reason you can only see them in autumn and winter months is because you need enough darkness to see them. The long daylight hours of the spring and summer months in the northern countries do not afford this opportunity. In addition, due to constantly changing weather conditions in Iceland, you also need to be there at least seven days in order to see the lights. If there is mist or rain at night, you will have no visibility to seeing them, even though they will be active in the heavens. During my two week stay there, the night we saw them was rally the only night it was possible.
The Aurora Borealis is always active, with activity scales ranging from one to nine. The activity levels are available online in aweather web site. A few days before I left for Reykavik, they were an unusual activity level 6 in the city. The entire city turned off all the lights so everyone could enjoy the spectacle. When I arrived a few days later there was still quite a bit of buzz about the lights, which had gone down to an activity level 4. However, the rain and clouds made it impossible to even book a trip to see them from Reykjavik.
We finally saw them in the north outside of Akureyri, when they were only an activity level two. We still saw the white, pink and green lights, just not as vibrantly as if they had higher activity levels (the pinks and greens are more outstanding the higher the activity levels).. They really are most visible after about 9 or 10 pm, and typically stay fairly visible until after midnight. The advantage to seeing them in a more remote city such as Akureyri, is that it only takes about fifteen minutes to reach a destination that has no city lights. In Reykjavik, the drive to reach such a point is about 45 minutes each way. So for a weary traveler who may be adjusting to the time difference, staying up until after midnight may be a tall order unless they have been there awhile. It was easy from Akureyri, even though it had been a long and full day of adventure. I had already been there nearly two weeks, so staying out till midnight with a short drive back to the hotel was easy. And it was more than worth the extraterrestrial experience watching the skies open up and dance, with a full and unobstructed Milky Way looking on in supervision. We even saw them from our hotel parking lot as we were leaving. But the real show didn’t begin until we were in an open area near a fjord.
When we were back in Reykjavik a few days later, I was after the lights of the John Lennon Peace Tower, visible only from October 9 until December 8, John Lennon’s birth and death days respectvtly. His widow Yoko Ono had a peace tower constructed off a small island next to Reykavik, and she comes to Icelnd each year on his birthday to light the tower. The Peace Tower has the same constraints as the Northern Lights in terms of visibility and weather, even though (or perhaps because) it is so close to the city. But on the third night I tried to see it I finally succeeded under clear skies. The life of John Lennon was one of controversy, and not always one of peace. But the conceptual art installation that sits atop the world to beam lights into space as a beacon of peace for the world is a beautiful and powerful artistic message.
And so, but the way, is the presence of the Aurora Borealis itself. After seeing these two amazing sets of lights – one a natural phenomenon, one mad made – I was calmed. The poetry of peace and the message I felt when the heavens opened up on the only night in my two weeks there that they were visible, was truly daunting. The universe was telling me that things were going my way, and all is right with the world.