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December 23, 2011

Iceland's Northern Lights

USA Today columnist visited Iceland and recounted her story of seeing the Northern Lights:

It's my last evening in Iceland, and I've been batting zero in a quest to experience the country's biggest winter draw: the polar phenomenon known as the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

But even as I cast a dubious eye at the snow swirling outside the windows of the snug Hotel Glymur, set high above a whaling fjord about a 45-minute drive north of the capital, Reykjavik, manager Ragna Ivarsdottir remains confidently optimistic.

Celestial fireworks, she explains, "are just like Santa Claus. If you really believe, you'll see them."

Plenty of northern lights hunters are hoping she's right. Like me, they've been lured to Iceland by off-season package deals, the island's prime vantage point just below the Arctic Circle, a 5½-hour flight from the USA— and NASA's prediction that increased solar emissions could make this winter's displays the most spectacular in 50 years.

The shimmering flares, now approaching the peak of an 11-year cycle, are created when charged particles known as solar wind strike the magnetic fields above the Earth's poles. They are such a common occurrence here between late September and mid-March that Reykjavik's Natura Hotel even spotlights them on their doorknob privacy cards ("northern lights out - please do not disturb").

"There has been this image that you can only come to Iceland in the summer," says the country's president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.

But despite its northern location, the volcanic, Virginia-sized island's close proximity to the moderating Gulf Stream means "New York is often colder in the winter," he contends. And during those long stints of darkness, "the striking interplay of light and color with the landscape is out of this world."

As I'm learning, however, what the president calls "an integral part of Icelandic nature" can be maddeningly capricious.

Clouds, common in Iceland this time of year, are a major damper. But even when conditions are ideal — a high latitude away from city lights, clear, moonless skies, and a forecast for lots of solar action — the northern lights "are totally unpredictable," says celebrated Icelandic photographer Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson.

Sights beyond the lights 

My first night in Iceland, I meet Sigurdsson around 11. After learning that my trusty iPhone camera will be useless and that the brilliant green hues associated with the phenomenon are often brighter through a lens than in real life, we start our foray into the blustery void.

Read more here.