Iceland’s Northern Lights turn deadly for tourists


January 14, 2019 11:51 am

The Northern Lights appear in the sky over Bifrost, Western Iceland. Police in Iceland say tourists are often putting themselves at risk searching for the Northern Lights by dividing their attentions between the road and the sky, and often underestimate the challenging conditions posed by Iceland’s twisty, narrow, often-icy roads in the winter. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud, file)

Police in Iceland has 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 colour 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 colourful 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.
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.

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

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.
Iceland’s road infrastructure also lags behind its boom in international tourism. The National Road No. 1, which runs for 1,337 kilometres  as it connects coastal towns and villages on this volcanic island of 350,000 people, still has narrow lanes and many one-lane bridges.

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.

The accuracy of aurora forecasting could soon improve, however.
The Chinese Polar Research Institute is opening Iceland’s first-ever aurora research station in a remote valley about a half-hour drive from the northern town of Akureyri. The futuristic three-store building, set to go into operation later this year, is part of China’s broad ambitions in the Arctic.

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