Don’t Go Chasing Icelandic Northern Lights (or at least don’t pre-pay for it)

Lots of people visit Iceland in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights (aka the “Aurora Borealis”).  And who can blame them?!  They’re breathtaking!  To that end, many tour companies offer “Northern Lights Chasing Tours” or something similarly titled that promises to take you out and about in search of this fabled atmospheric phenomenon.  But what they don’t promise is that you’ll actually see the Northern Lights . . .

You need 3 things in order to see the Northern Lights: (1) solar activity; (2) darkness; and (3) clear skies.

Iceland in the winter is actually pretty fantastic. I speak from experience!

Solar Activity
This is the meat and potatoes and what actually causes the Norther Lights: no solar activity, no deal.  Our sun will sometimes throw off various particles, known as a solar wind, and send them hurtling out into space.  It takes these winds about 40 hours to reach Earth.  If the Earth is in the path of a solar wind, its magnetic fields concentrate the particles at its poles.  As the particles move towards the poles and begin to concentrate in the higher latitudes, such as Iceland, they interact with various gases in the atmosphere to create the awe-inspiring light display we refer to as the Northern Lights.

Darkness
It means just that – it needs to be dark.  This also means that a summer trip to Iceland won’t result in the needed night time darkness.  As early as May through as late as August, due to the Earth’s tilt towards the sun, some degree of sunlight persists around the clock in Iceland and prevents the necessary darkness to view Northern Lights activity.  So consider a trip to Iceland in the winter – the nights are sufficiently dark to see the Lights and it’s not as cold as you’d think thanks to Iceland’s location in the Gulf Stream (trust me, I’ve been there in February and it was fantastic!).

Clear Skies
Just like an overcast day casts only a gray light or a cloudy night masks the moon, cloudy skies will prevent you from seeing Northern Lights activity.  As with any weather, this is up to Mother Nature so with a little luck there will be at least one night on your trip with clear skies to view any Northern Lights activity.

Consider renting a car and doing some Northern Lights chasing on your own.

Unless these three requirements are all present, that “Northern Lights Chasing Tour” you pre-booked months ago simply can’t deliver.  This is not to say you shouldn’t try once you get to Iceland!  Darkness and clear skies are easy to figure out on your own by simply traveling to Iceland at the appropriate time of year and checking the weather app on your phone.  Fortunately, there is also a way for us non-scientist folks to see an “Aurora forecast” by visiting the Icelandic Meteorological Office.  Consider renting a car and doing some chasing on your own if the predictions look good.  Or, if you really want a tour, wait to book it until you’re actually in Iceland and have an opportunity to check out the necessary forecasts.

The Northern Lights are absolutely worth chasing – just be sure to chase them knowing there’s a good chance you’ll catch them.

-Chad

P.S. FUN FACT: Towards the South Pole, this same phenomenon is called the “Aurora Australis.”

How to Cash in Your Woefully Underused Vacation Time

Say this out loud: “I deserve a break!” Yes you do! I know you work your tail off day in and day out! Sooooooooo . . . why do we Americans leave 51% of our eligible paid vacation time sitting on the table?

Despite being stressed out of our minds, we are working more hours and taking fewer vacation days. The reasons for this vary with some people saying they don’t want to deal with the mountain of work that awaits them upon returning from vacation. Others simply don’t think that anyone else can do their job while they are away. Unsurprisingly, some are intimidated by a cutthroat office culture where everyone is eerily silent about the fact that no one seems to take any vacation.

Leave-Office
You can spend your weekend here, or you can spend it drinking mai tai’s on the beach. The choice is yours to make.

Therefore, the first question really is HOW to cash-in your paid time off. The answer: Be a long-weekend-warrior.

We fine Americans have the blessing of geography on our side. A few hours plane ride to the south is lovely Mexico and a gorgeous string of Caribbean islands that offer sun, surf, and sand with all-inclusive resorts at very reasonable prices. You can take a Friday and a Monday off to maximize the weekend days, and trot off to Punta Cana, Montego Bay, or the Mexican Riviera Maya for a long weekend of sipping frosty beverages while soaking in the sun. Even if you have to take some work with you (ugh), the resorts have Wi-Fi and doing a little work by the pool beats your cramped cubicle or office any day. You can even use your time waiting on the concourse to get these ‘lil tasks out of the way.

If you’re feeling adventurous, Iceland is only a 5-6 hour flight from the East Coast and you can pack a lot into this tiny island-nation over a long weekend. Any time of year is fine since Icelandic winters are very mild, the shorter days make for prime-time Northern Lights viewing, and the geothermal hot springs are toasty all year ‘round.

Iceland's Blue Lagoon hot spring will melt away the work stress over a long weekend.
Iceland’s Blue Lagoon hot spring will melt away the work stress over a long weekend.

The second question, which seems generally obvious, is WHY you should cash in your paid time off.

Did you know that people who travel to places with different cultures or run in the same circles as other travelers are more likely to come up with creative ideas? It’s true! A smarty-pants study from Adam Galinksy, a management professor at Columbia Business School says so! So, go on vacation, get the creative juices flowing, and wow your boss with oodles of new ideas when you get back! Not to mention that breaking away from your day-to-day routine resets your mind and body to give you better perspective and renewed vigor. Plus, you’ll be the envy of the water-cooler convos as you’ll be the only one in the office who’s tanned, rested, and ready to go.

So, whip out that calendar, block off some long weekends, and use up your vacation time, people!

Say it one more time with me: “I deserve a break!” Yes. Yes, you do.

-Chad