Image: Richard McManus
Image: Richard McManus
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, is a fascinating phenomenon that captivates onlookers as its magnificent arrays of colors illuminate the night sky. Icebergs, too, are a naturally occurring wonder that inspire a sense of awe – and trepidation – among those who see them. Fortunately for audacious photographers journeying around the Arctic Circle, both of these marvels can be sighted from the northerly latitudes of countries such as Finland, Norway and Canada. The spectacular mix of the aurora’s celestial displays and the raw majesty of floating ice chunks is truly something to behold. Here are 20 of the best photographs that capture this special combination.
Each auroral show is unique, potentially cascading shades of pink, yellow or even violet and red across the heavens – though green displays are said to be encountered most frequently. For instance, photographer Richard McManus discovered these beautiful green auroral rays in the sky over an imposing-looking Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland. The dramatic setting is roughly 155 miles above the Arctic Circle, and it’s here where ice that detaches from Sermeq Kujalleq – which is among the planet’s most swiftly progressing glaciers – plunges into the sea.
Jokulsarlon in Iceland is a must-see natural attraction found in the island nation’s southeast region. Its appeal comes from the glacial lake’s reputation as an excellent place for northern lights spotting and its numerous and dramatic floating icebergs, which separate from continental Europe’s biggest glacier, Vatnajokull. Photographer Larry Malvin has here perfectly conveyed the area’s allure by capturing a spectacular array of colors painting the sky during a period of amazing auroral activity.
Malvin also snapped this photo at Jokulsarlon, his shot capturing a luminous green northern lights show above the lagoon’s broken-off pieces of glacial ice. Auroral displays like the one pictured generally occur closer to the poles because the Earth’s magnetic field is not as strong at these points. Hence, charged particles from the Sun crash into gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the reaction manifests itself as the aurora.
Sonja Grubenmann is another photographer who’s fallen for the charm of Iceland’s northern lights. This image of a mysterious, mist-shrouded auroral display at Jokulsarlon was captured on New Year’s Eve 2011 – an evening that evidently coincided with particularly impressive particle collisions. Remarkably, the scientific explanation for the aurora as involving solar activity was first conjectured in the late 19th century, though it was only developed more fully following research begun 70 years later.
Image: Shalin Nijel
The Sun’s particles dash toward Earth in the solar wind at up to 625 miles per second, and the subsequent reactions are obligingly spectacular. There’s no telling how long auroral displays will last, though: it could be a few minutes or a few hours. Regardless, people travel far and wide in Arctic temperatures to capture them on camera, as Shalin Nijel did here in magical fashion at Jokulsarlon.
Earth’s various gases are responsible for the diverse colors of these celestial lights. Oxygen molecules colliding with the Sun’s particles result in the yellowy-green shades like those seen in this shot of Jokulsarlon by Moyan Brenn, while the purple streaks are brought about by nitrogen. The scarcest auroral color, red, is caused by oxygen that’s particularly high above the planet’s surface.
The northern lights’ brilliance increases following an 11-year solar cycle – one that previously peaked in 2013. That same year, photographer Xose Casal visited Jokulsarlon and did a great job of capturing these mesmerizing shades of green, yellow, pink and purple streaked across the sky and reflected beautifully in the lagoon below.
Even though winter is the best time of year for snapping the northern lights, photographer Pablo Esvertit was able to capture these shooting blues and greens toward the end of summer. He patiently waited until the clouds above had dissipated and took this stunning picture of an auroral display illuminating Jokulsarlon’s famous icebergs.
Those hunting for the notoriously elusive aurora have no guarantee of when or where the ethereal colored lights will appear. Clouds or precipitation may prevent an unhindered sightline, and even on a clear night this celestial temptress may refuse to light the heavens with her magical manifestation. Fortunately, no such problems occurred when this photo was snapped in Auster-Skaftafellssysla, Iceland in October 2014.
Image: Michael Blanchette
Northern lights spotters come out in earnest between September and March, when the days are shorter and the nights longer. Daylight hours this far north are especially limited in December and January, while the midnight hours of February and March are favored observation periods. This Jokulsarlon image from Michael Blanchette, for example, was snapped shortly after midnight in March 2013.
Steve Arnold photographed this UFO-like northern lights display looming above Jokulsarlon while he was on a week-long trip around Iceland. The eerie green light hovers over the moonlit icebergs below, yet while the oval shape may seem otherworldly, it’s actually just a result of where in space the particles originated and how they entered our atmosphere.
Image: Nate Stott
The altitude of the aurora’s causative gases can be gauged by the incredible colors on display. The most common hues, the light yellows and greens seen here in Nate Stott’s photograph of Jokulsarlon, indicate oxygen at an altitude of approximately 60 miles. Meanwhile, the rarer shade of deep red occurs owing to the same gas’ presence as far up as 200 miles. Generally, though, the lights that paint the sky will be anywhere from 50 to 400 miles overhead.
Image: Extreme Iceland
Location-wise, excellent aurora-spotting opportunities abound around the Arctic Circle. In Europe, Iceland boasts the aforementioned spectacular Jokulsarlon – where tour company Extreme Iceland snapped this image – while there are also hotspots in Greenland and northern Norway and Finland. In North America, the Canadian regions of Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories as well as the U.S. state of Alaska are all considered more than good bets.
Image: Dales Photography
Photographer Yasmin Hussain captured this captivating view of the aurora borealis performing above the Jokulsarlon lagoon – which, if these images are anything to go by, has to be among the world’s best places from which to sight the northern lights. In fact, the aurora can be spotted from just about anywhere in Iceland – though better views are to be enjoyed beyond the confines of the capital, Reykjavik.
Image: Esen Tunar
Photographer Esen Tunar has been aurora hunting in Norway and Iceland, and this magical shot of his was taken at Jokulsarlon in spring 2011. Tunar has managed to capture breathtaking images in both Nordic locations, though the floating ice and mirrored lights of this image make it truly remarkable. Interestingly, the entire country of Iceland is approximately the same size as the state of Virginia.
Image: Michael Vartholomaios
Part of the reason why Iceland is so magical is that glaciers encase over a tenth of its landmass, with the Vatnajokull glacier keeping Jokulsarlon – captured here by Michael Vartholomaios during a northern lights display – in a ready supply of icebergs. The lagoon itself is roughly a four-and-a-half hour drive from Reykjavik along the ring road that circles the entire island.
Vatnajokull is particularly impressive, even by glacier standards. It’s so big that separate glaciers like Breidamerkurjokull – which ends at Jokulsarlon – flow off of it. The smaller ice blocks that have broken away from the glacier and entered the lagoon make the perfect backdrop to nighttime northern lights images – like this one from Xose Casal.
Carlos Resende also captured the playful northern lights dancing above Jokulsarlon. The photographer seemed particularly taken by the imperious Vatnajokull, which he described as a “vast dome of ice.” Interestingly, it was only when the glacier began retreating away from the Atlantic Ocean – a process that continues today – that the Jokulsarlon lagoon was formed.
Night almost becomes day in Moyan Brenn’s picture of an especially bright northern lights display above Jokulsarlon’s glowing icebergs. Indeed, the vibrant green sky and vivid blue bergs even light the waters below and are perfectly encapsulated in a piece of broken-off ice close to the photographer.
Image: Bill Devlin
In September 2014 Bill Devlin snapped a tranquil-looking Jokulsarlon in the early hours of the morning. All was not as it seemed, however. That glint of orange light isn’t the rising Sun but is, rather, lava flow from the nearby Bardarbunga volcano, which started erupting the previous month. Days before the photo was taken, the volcano’s lava field had grown to approximately 14 square miles. Here, though, it only adds to the splendor of the northern lights.