Iceland police warn drivers of risk to see lights
Eye on sky doesn’t mix with treacherous roads
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.
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.