Ice­land po­lice urge North­ern Lights safety

Ce­les­tial dis­play can dis­tract mo­torists from dark, icy roads

The Detroit News - - NEWS - BY EGILL BJAR­NA­SON As­so­ci­ated Press

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

Spend­ing a clear win­ter night un­der an Arc­tic sky lit up by spec­tac­u­lar streaks of color from the North­ern Lights is an of­ten-cited “bucket-list” ex­pe­ri­ence among the rea­sons 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., mean­ing that tourists are spend­ing most of their day driv­ing in the dark.

Au­thor­i­ties note that the cap­i­tal, Reyk­javik, Akureyri and other ar­eas have tourism com­pa­nies that of­fer nightly North­ern Lights bus tours near-daily in the win­ter so tourists can leave the driv­ing to pro­fes­sion­als.

Ice­land’s road in­fra­struc­ture also lags be­hind its boom in in­ter­na­tional tourism. The na­tional Road No. 1, which runs for 830 miles as it con­nects coastal towns and vil­lages on this vol­canic is­land of 350,000 peo­ple, still has nar­row lanes and many one-lane bridges.

Last month, an SUV car­ry­ing seven British tourists plunged off a one-lane bridge on Road No. 1 in south­ern Ice­land, killing three peo­ple and crit­i­cally in­jur­ing the oth­ers.

In the win­ter, tourists from warm coun­tries — who may never have driven in snow and ice — have been more likely to get into ac­ci­dents, ac­cord­ing to the Ice­landic Trans­port Au­thor­ity.

Egill Bjar­na­son / AP

A re­mote re­gion on the edge of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, Ice­land, is one of the best places in the world to spot the North­ern Lights phe­nom­e­non.

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