What to Expect on an Island Northern Lights Tour with Dr. John Mason

The Northern Lights are nature’s most spectacular show; as unpredictable as they are beautiful.

This year, travelers will have the unique opportunity to visit Iceland with expert astronomer Dr. John Mason in search of northern lights. With more than 30 years of experience leading overseas expeditions to record and observe natural phenomena, you couldn’t ask for a better traveling companion on an aurora hunting adventure. Not only will you receive insights and tips on the best way to observe the lights, but a series of lectures will explain the science behind their elusive displays.

When your head isn’t turned to the sky, you’ll be dazzled by Iceland’s wonders, from the eclectic charm of Reykjavik to the volcanic formations of Lake Myvatn. But what can you expect from an adventure built around the unexpected? We spoke with Dr. John Mason to find out what you should know before you travel and what you can discover in the land of fire and ice.

Do you remember what sparked your interest in the Northern Lights?

My love affair with the northern lights, or northern lights, began on the night of the 5thTh August 1972 when there was a rare aurora display visible from southern England. I witnessed the exhibition from my home, which fortunately was in a nice, dark place. I have been fascinated by the northern lights ever since. I started traveling up into the Arctic to see them in 1988 and have done so ever since, traveling to Alaska, Yukon, Iceland and northernmost Norway, Sweden and Finland. Seeing them is addictive, almost like a drug, because no matter how wonderful an aurora you have seen, you always hope for something better next time!

Why have you chosen places on this trip, and why at this time of year?

Lake Myvatn
Lake Myvatn.

Iceland is close to the northern aurora oval – the ring around the Arctic Circle where the northern lights are most likely to be seen. It is also a country with the most amazingly beautiful nature with glorious waterfalls, glaciers, hot springs, mountains and volcanoes. The lights from the capital Reykjavik can be quite bright in and around the city itself, so to get the best view of the northern lights I like to go out of the city up to the northern part of the country. To the northeast, in the Lake Myvatn area, there are not only dramatic volcanic landscapes, but if the weather allows for a clear sky, the northern lights are almost always visible. In the late spring and summer months the skies here are too bright to see them, but in the fall and winter months the nights are long and offer plenty of opportunities to get some good views.

Can you tell us a little about the lectures that will take place?

In the lectures, I try to give people the background knowledge they need to appreciate the arctic night sky, to understand how the northern lights are formed, their many different forms, and how to get the very best experience when outside observing and trying to get nice pictures of the northern sound views. I explain how the northern lights occur when electrically charged particles – originating from the Sun’s outer atmosphere – are directed down into the Earth’s atmosphere in an area around the north magnetic pole, known as the auroral oval. As these particles collide with atoms and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen high in the atmosphere, they excite them to produce the light we see as the aurora borealis. I also describe how the Northern Lights appear in many forms from scattered spots of diffuse light to arcs, ribbons, streamers, rippling curtains or drapes of light and even searchlight-like beams that illuminate the sky with an eerie glow. Sometimes there is little or no movement, but other times the northern lights flicker and dance across the sky in quite a mesmerizing way.

What would you consider the highlights of this adventure?

Reykjavik street
Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Imagine by Justin Meneguzzi.

Iceland is always a seductive country to visit. The capital, Reykjavik, is one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities in the world, and there are so many fascinating places to see. My favorites are Hallgrímskirkja Church, Harpa Concert Hall, the Parliament Building, the historic Höfði House, the panoramic view from Perlan (or ‘The Pearl’) and the Sun Voyager sculpture, to name just a few. The north of Iceland is a fascinating land of waterfalls and incredible rugged landscapes that have been sculpted by glaciers and volcanic eruptions over the past few million years. The Lake Myvatn region is one of my favorite areas and it is from here that one hopes to catch one of nature’s greatest light shows – the northern lights.

Should travelers bring any equipment or have an astronomy experience to get the most out of this trip?

It is of course important to bring appropriate clothing and sensible footwear for the trip, especially as you may be out for long periods at night hoping to catch the Northern Lights. Late October/early November is a transition period between autumn and winter, and there can be great variation in weather conditions with sunshine, rain showers and snow showers in one day. So one must be prepared for any eventuality. At night, temperatures can drop to close to zero and during the day it will be around 4-7°C. Binoculars are always handy both for day and night use, and if you want to take good pictures with your camera, a tripod is definitely useful. No previous experience or knowledge of astronomy is necessary to get the most out of the tour.

What are the chances of seeing the Northern Lights in this part of the world?

Northern Lights in Iceland
Northern Lights in Iceland.

The longer you stay in or very close to the Arctic Circle during the viewing season – which runs from late September to early April – the better the chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Statistics collected in 2015 showed that if a guest stays just one night in the Arctic, they have only a 14% chance of seeing the Northern Lights, while if they stay five nights, their chances increase to around 90%. But you have to be ready to get up when the sky is clear – even if it’s 3 in the morning!

What is the one thing people should know before they go hunting for the Northern Lights?

When embarking on an adventure to see the Northern Lights, be aware that the two qualities you need in abundance are patience and persistence in equal measure! Nature rarely runs after that our time schedule. The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon. By their nature, they are unpredictable – just like the arctic weather! There can be long periods of overcast skies or little or no aurora activity, then sudden and often quite short bursts of activity when the aurora can vary rapidly in shape, brightness and colour. When this happens, they are worth every moment of the long wait, but one must remain alert and ready.

And finally, the most important advice I can give you is:

The Northern Lights are one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Enjoy them with your eyes and enjoy them by experiencing them firsthand BEFORE you use your camera. The mental pictures and experiences you take with you are far more important than pictures taken with your camera.

Do you want to search for the northern lights with Dr. John Mason? Learn more about this tour.

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