Aurora chasing: Part I

Part one in a series of posts about Iceland.

I always find it hard to articulate why it is that I keep returning to Iceland. I’ve been to some amazing places in my time; the Lake District, New York City, Barcelona, the Cayman Islands, but none of them has quite the same effect on me that Iceland does. I’ve seen the same in other people, so I know it’s not just me – as a rational, scientific thinker I hesitate to use spiritual metaphors, but this volcanic north Atlantic island does seem to have something about it that bewitches people, meaning that every time you go, you just want to return even more.

The Mýrdalsjökull glacier, seen from the cliffs at Dyrhólaey

What doesn’t help is that the locals are some of the loveliest people I’ve ever encountered, and having made friends with several of them on Twitter, and met them in real life in my last few visits, I now have what feel like family ties pulling me back each time.

In February 2012 I travelled to Iceland for the eighth time, third time within the space of two years. The aim was two-fold; to go on my own and hence be free to get up at ungodly hours and stay up until ungodly hours, and to try to capture the aurora on camera, something I had singularly failed to do in all my previous visits.

My previous visit, in which I was photographing the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011, was actually only the first time I ever got to witness the aurora first hand. I was walking on the harbour front in Reykjavík with Tim and James, my two colleagues from The 405 who were covering the festival with me, when we saw what looked like a cloud move in an unexpected way. We knew straight away what it was, and the three of us spent the next ten minutes staring into the northern sky with our mouths wide open as solar particles bombarded the upper atmosphere, ionising oxygen atoms, which glowed like green and pink cosmic curtains gently blowing in the solar wind.

So from that moment I determined that the next time I went to Iceland I’d do my best to capture this spectacular phenomenon on camera.

A brief introduction

Iceland is one of the most recent additions to the Earth’s geology. It was formed around 20 million years ago by volcanic eruptions at the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, known as the mid-atlantic ridge. As a result of its relatively young age, it consists almost entirely of volcanic rock, and signs of the huge gash in the earth’s crust are everywhere, in particular at Þingvellir National Park, (‘Thingvellir’), site of the world’s oldest democratically elected parliament.

Þingvellir national park, where the Icelandic parliament (Alþingi) was founded. Now based in Reykjavík, the Alþingi is over 1,000 years old.

For many millennia Iceland was covered by glaciers, leaving behind magnificent fjords as the ice retreated. Nowhere are these more in evidence than in the far north west, where the Western Fjords sit like antlers on some strange mythical beast swimming in the north atlantic ocean. Remnants of the ice age remain in the shape of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull (the water glacier), and several smaller cousins, including the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, named after the mountain range that overlooks the Westman Islands to the south (eyja = islands, fjalla = mountains).

Eyjafjallajökull glacier, as seen on the scale model of Iceland in Reykjavík City Hall.

Iceland was first named by the viking explorer Flóki Vilgerðason, who took the nickname Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki). He suffered a very cold winter at Barðaströnd in the Western Fjords, and as the drift ice floated up the fjords he named the land Ísland (literally, land of ice). The name stuck, and even to this day gives the impression of a much harsher environment than actually exists on a land benefitting from the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.

The Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson is widely considered to be the first person to have settled on Iceland for good. The story goes that he threw two pillars into the sea as he approached the island, and followed the coast until he found them on the northern edge of the south-western peninsula now known as Reykjanes. He named the area Reykjavík, which means bay of smoke, after the steam rising from the land due to geothermal activity which can still be spotted in places throughout Iceland today.

Read Part II here.