Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag

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Difficult to predict auroral activity with any accuracy

By Sara McMahon

  • Northern lights over Grótta. Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson

According to Dr. Þorsteinn Sæmundsson, an astronomer who has studied the Auroras Borealis for decades, it is difficult to predict auroral activity with any accuracy.

Contrary to common belief, the Aurora Borealis is most commonly seen around the equinoxes and not during the winter months. Autumn is usually warmer than spring and that increases the likelihood of Auroral displays.

According to Dr. Þorsteinn Sæmundsson, an astronomer who has studied the Auroras Borealis for decades, it is difficult to predict auroral activity with any accuracy. Northerners like to maintain that sightings are more common and spectacular in the north of Iceland than in the south; the truth of the matter is that there is little if any difference between the two regions.

One thing that helps predict auroral activity is the fact that Auroras are more frequent during the intense phase of the solar cycle when coronal mass ejections (when huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation is released into space above the sun’s surface) increase the intensity of the solar wind. Secondly, Northern Lights usually occur in Iceland at around midnight.

 

Þorsteinn Sæmundsson, astronomer. Photo/GVA

The year 2013 was predicted to be an extremely good year for Northern Light sightings, was that the fact?
“I don’t think the year was all that good for auroral observers in Iceland. The main reason was unfavourable weather but the sun was also less active than had been expected. However, the Aurora does not follow solar activity as closely as commonly thought and we may well see many fine displays in the declining years of the solar cycle,” says Sæmundsson.

What is it about the Northern Lights that you find so captivating?
“In my opinion, the magnificent colours and swift movements of the Aurora present a sight unrivalled by any phenomenon in nature, with the possible exception of a total solar eclipse,” he explains, adding that of the hundreds of displays he has seen in his lifetime, two left a particularly strong impression on him.

“The first was a display I saw at the early age of eight or nine, standing alone in a field covered by snow. This aurora was bright but not particularly colourful. The changing shapes finally formed what looked like a gigantic hand, directly overhead. I found the sight a little scary and headed for home! The second occasion was the first major display I witnessed after I began to make regular auroral observations. The date was September 25th 1952, according to my diary. The beauty of this display was indescribable and marked the beginning of my lifelong interest in the Aurora.”

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