Why Iceland’s Biggest City Turned Off Its Lights for One Night

Reykjavik decided to pause in the dark to witness one of Earth’s most beautiful phenomena

Once it gets dark, it’s easy to go about your business without noticing the sky that peeks out above the streetlights. But in Reykjavik, Iceland, this week, that simply wasn’t an option. As Pauline Bock reports for The New York Times, the entire city looked a bit different Wednesday night after officials ordered the streetlights to be extinguished so that residents could see the Northern Lights more clearly.

And what a view: All of Scandinavia has been treated to a spectacular show of late. Aurora Borealis activity has been high lately, thanks to a waning moon and a coronal hole—an area where the Sun’s magnetic field is open to space and sends solar material shooting out in a gust of solar wind—that’s led to a geomagnetic storm.

That’s great news for people who want to see the otherworldly lights. When solar wind reaches Earth, it interacts with the planet’s magnetic field. Charged particles slam into Earth’s atmosphere, colliding with gases and giving off gorgeous lights.

As if to remind the people of Iceland that they’re a force of nature, not civic ordinance, the lights didn’t show up precisely on schedule. Rather, Bock reports, they showed up a bit later than expected despite lights being shut off at 10 p.m. They stayed off until midnight, and the people of Reykjavik enjoyed a rare opportunity to soak up the glories of the Aurora Borealis without leaving home.

Though the city is smack in the middle of great Northern Lights viewing, it’s got enough light pollution to make viewing difficult unless you’re far enough away to catch the show. Since the city has streetlights and light from homes, aurora enthusiasts suggest you head at least a few miles outside the city if you want to see the lights in all their glory.

Authorities have done this before in response to particularly strong Aurora Borealis patterns: In 2006, they did the same thing, hiring an astronomer to describe the phenomenon over the radio during lights-out, and in 2013 a few suburbs decided to follow suit.

It’s unclear when Reykjavik will decide it’s time to shut off its lights again, but the city’s actions are a good reminder to take some time to appreciate the night sky, wherever you are.

(h/t BBC)