Ice­land po­lice warn driv­ers of risk to see lights

Eye on sky doesn’t mix with treach­er­ous roads

Las Vegas Review-Journal - - WORLD - By Egill Bjar­na­son The As­so­ci­ated Press

AKUREYRI, Ice­land — Po­lice in Ice­land have a warn­ing for vis­i­tors: Be­ware our roads in the win­ter.

The chance to spend a clear win­ter night un­der an Arc­tic sky lit up by spec­tac­u­lar streaks of color from the North­ern Lights, an of­ten-cited “bucket-list” ex­pe­ri­ence, is one rea­son more peo­ple are vis­it­ing Ice­land, es­pe­cially its north­ern re­gion.

The re­mote re­gion on the edge of the Arc­tic Cir­cle is one of the best places in the world to spot the col­or­ful phe­nom­e­non.

But po­lice say many for­eign vis­i­tors lack the ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise to han­dle Ice­land’s win­try road con­di­tions. They are in­creas­ingly wor­ried about vis­i­tors scan­ning the sky for the North­ern Lights and not look­ing at the road, which may be icy, twisty or nar­row — or all three con­di­tions at once.

“The weather in Ice­land changes ev­ery five min­utes, so to speak, and road con­di­tions change ac­cord­ingly,” said su­per­in­ten­dent Jo­hannes Sig­fusson of the Akureyri Po­lice Depart­ment, the largest in the north­ern re­gion. “In a mat­ter of min­utes, a dry road can turn icy and slip­pery.

“The risk is com­pounded in the mid­dle of the night, when an in­ex­pe­ri­enced driver is de­prived of sleep and with one eye on the sky.”

Of the 18 peo­ple who died in traf­fic crashes in Ice­land in 2018, half of them were for­eign­ers, con­tin­u­ing a trend that started the year be­fore, when more for­eign­ers than res­i­dents died for the first time on this vol­canic is­land in the North At­lantic.

The aurora bo­re­alis, or North­ern Lights, oc­cur when a mag­netic so­lar wind slams into the Earth’s mag­netic field and causes atoms in the up­per at­mos­phere to glow. The lights ap­pear quite sud­denly and the in­ten­sity varies — the most amaz­ing are bright green with streaks of pur­ple and yel­low.

North­ern Lights sight­ings de­pend on a mix of luck and ef­fort. The Ice­landic Met Of­fice op­er­ates a 9-scale North­ern Lights fore­cast ev­ery day, based on so­lar winds in the past three days, that pin­points the best spots in the coun­try each night to try to see the lights.

But trav­el­ing away from city lights is most of­ten nec­es­sary, and that has led some driv­ers to take haz­ardous moun­tain roads.

Po­lice say they have en­coun­tered sleep-de­prived driv­ers cruis­ing into the night, as well as ve­hi­cles driv­ing with­out lights on to pre­vent light pol­lu­tion. Po­lice say some ac­ci­dents even hap­pen on main roads, when tourists hit the brakes quickly be­cause of a sud­den North­ern Lights sight­ing and then get hit from be­hind.

It doesn’t help that, in Ice­landic win­ters, the sun in Akureyri can rise as late as 11:39 a.m. and set as early as 2:43 p.m..

Au­thor­i­ties note that tourism com­pa­nies in the cap­i­tal, Reyk­javik, along with Akureyri and other places, of­fer nightly North­ern Lights bus tours nearly daily in the win­ter so tourists can leave the driv­ing to pro­fes­sion­als.

Rene Rossig­naud The As­so­ci­ated Press file

The North­ern Lights, or aurora bo­re­alis, ap­pear in March 2017 over Bifrost, Ice­land. Po­lice in Ice­land say tourists are of­ten putting them­selves at risk search­ing for the spec­tac­u­lar streaks of color that light up the win­ter skies.

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