Iceland’s Aurora Borealis is a stunning natural phenomenon that can be seen in the dark night sky more than seven months per year. This surreal sight attracts thousands of visitors every year. For many people around the world, seeing the Northern Lights is at the top of their bucket lists. Here’s everything you need to know about the aurora and how to maximize your chances of seeing it during your travels in Iceland.
What Causes the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are caused by solar particles from the sun hitting the Earth’s magnetic field.
The sun is made of incredibly hot, electrically-charged gas, called plasma. As the plasma currents move around inside the star, they create a complicated system of magnetic fields. In some places, strong magnetic fields push towards the surface with great power and break off, spitting a large amount of hot plasma into open space.
This material then travels towards our planet at great speed. This is what we refer to as the “solar wind.” As the electrically-charged particles approach Earth, most of them are repelled by the Earth’s own magnetic field. Some particles, however, get trapped by the magnetic field and are funneled down toward the magnetic poles.
As the sun’s particles collide with the different atoms in our atmosphere, energy is released. This is what causes the phenomenon known as the Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere and Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere.
Are the Northern Lights Always Green?
Not always. The Northern Lights usually appear green because our eyes are more sensitive to green than to other colors. Also, green auroras are created when the sun’s particles collide with oxygen atoms, which are the second-most common ingredient in the atmosphere.
Why Do the Lights Appear in Different Shapes and Colors?
The color of the lights depends on how high in the atmosphere the collision takes place and what elements are being ionized. Green auroras occur when the reaction takes place lower in the atmosphere, about 96 km (60 mi.) above the Earth’s surface. This is where the greatest number of oxygen atoms are.
Collisions with oxygen molecules also cause red auroras, but these collisions happen at a much higher altitude, about 320 km (200 mi.) above the Earth’s surface. Because our eyes are less sensitive to this wavelength, red auroras are rarely seen. In fact, they’ll generally only be visible during times with a lot of solar activity.
Blue light occurs during the highest levels of solar activity when the reaction takes place in the nitrogen-rich lower altitudes. This probably is the rarest aurora, so if you happen to see it, consider yourself incredibly lucky!
There are some additional colors such as yellow, pink, and white. These are perceived when some of the other colors occur at the same time, creating new colors like in a painting.
The shape of the phenomenon can also vary greatly, depending on the intensity of the solar wind and the condition of the magnetic field. In low activity, the lights are just a diffuse glow without any distinctive shape. This can be quite hard for our eyes to detect.
The movement of the solar particles is guided by the Earth’s magnetic field. The aurora often appears as stripes, arcs, or curves. Sometimes, when the solar activity is extreme, the lights occur overhead like rays from above or a crown. That’s why this is called a corona aurora. When strong, a “northern light show” can display different shapes and colors all in the same night.
What Do They Look Like in Real-Time?
Most of the videos you’ve seen are probably timelapse videos that speed up the events a lot to make the aurora look even more active. In reality, the Northern Lights change slowly and sometimes are even motionless for hours.
Here’s a timelapse video where the events are sped up:
And here’s a normal, slow-moving aurora display. This is the closest to what you’ll most likely see when you visit Iceland:
When Is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?
Iceland’s ultimate aurora season starts in late August and lasts until early April. Because they can only be detected in the dark sky, there are certain months when you can’t observe the Northern Lights in Iceland. These are the summer months when both the days and nights are dominated by brightness.
The ideal time is when the nights are long and dark but the weather is also good. The mid-winter months offer the longest nights of the year with 18–21 hours of darkness per day between November and February. However, this period is also the wettest and stormiest time of the year, making the conditions less ideal for aurora hunters.
September and March are the two months that offer the best weather during the Northern Lights season with nights that are long and dark enough to see the aurora. You can learn more about the monthly weather in Iceland in this article.
Although you can pick the month that seems the most ideal weather- and darkness-wise, luck still has a considerable role to play. Even if you visit Iceland during the dark winter months and are lucky enough to get nice weather and clear skies, seeing this unpredictable phenomenon is still not guaranteed.
When Is the Aurora the Most Active?
Solar activity has 11-year cycles. Each cycle has an active and inactive phase. The last solar maximum happened around 2013. In 2020, we’re now in a declining phase. The next solar maximum is predicted to happen around 2024, with more frequent aurora displays than what is happening now.
Even though we’re in a quiet phase, this doesn’t mean that there’s no solar activity at all. It just means that it’s less intense and the Northern Lights might not be as strong. In Iceland, we’re still witnessing regular aurora displays, sometimes even for many days in a row!
Since this is a natural phenomenon, it can be very difficult to predict when and where it will occur. The Northern Lights are so dependent on solar activity that it’s difficult to predict them more than two hours in advance. We can estimate the number of sunspots that might occur, but we can’t predict when or how frequently they will appear.
At Around What Time Are the Northern Lights the Most Active?
This is a common question but, unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. The sunset happens at a very different time each month. In December, it’s fully dark after 5 pm while in September, it won’t begin to be dark until after 9 pm. In addition, there can be 1–2 hours of difference between the sunset times in North and South Iceland due to the altitude, so there’s no general answer to this question. The one definite thing you should do is wait until it’s completely dark before going out to hunt the Northern Lights.
What Are the Best Conditions for Aurora Watching?
It’s not enough to simply visit Iceland during the right season. Succeeding in your goal of witnessing the Northern Lights requires a couple of other conditions to be met as well. Therefore, the length of your stay is an important factor. The longer you stay, the more likely it is that the following factors will align, so that you can see the aurora.
High Solar Activity
As you read above, this natural phenomenon is a result of solar activity. It’s one ingredient that you definitely need and something that no one can predict precisely. There are Northern Lights forecast sites and applications that are relatively reliable but which are still way less reliable than a normal weather forecast.
If the aurora forecast is good, the next thing you need is a dark sky. The charged particles that cause the Northern Lights to appear don’t only collide during the night. These reactions can happen at any time of the day, but we can only see the result at night when the sky is dark. Otherwise, the sun’s brightness will drown out the light.
Having high solar activity and a dark sky is not enough. You also need clear skies to be able to see the show. It doesn’t matter how strong the lights are if they’re covered by clouds. A few clouds are okay, but a thick layer can completely ruin the experience and make it impossible to witness the lights. Many aurora forecast applications have a cloud cover forecast that predicts how cloudy it will be over the next few days.
No Light Pollution
If both the aurora and the cloud cover forecast are promising, there’s a good chance that you will see the lights. To make the most of it, you must find a place where light pollution won’t disturb your experience. Your eyes will perceive the lights much more intensely if there are no other light sources around. Leave the light-polluted areas behind and find a nice, dark spot from which you can enjoy the show.
A Good, Safe Location
The best location would be a higher viewpoint or a flat area where no other objects are blocking the view. Sometimes the lights appear low, near the horizon, and a house or a mountain could disturb your view or even block it completely. The larger portion of the sky that you can see, the greater chance you’ll have to see the aurora at its fullest.
Another thing you must keep in mind is safety. It’s both illegal and dangerous to pull off to the side of the road in the dark. Make sure that you find a safe place to park your car. If you’re planning to walk and leave the parking lot behind, don’t forget to take a headlamp with you.
Sometimes the lights are so weak that our eyes can’t detect them. Even so, it’s worth trying to take a photo of the sky with your camera, since you might be able to catch the aurora using a long exposure. For this, you’ll need to prepare a bit and learn how to photograph the Northern Lights. If you’re up for taking photos, don’t leave your tripod at home!
Is There a Northern Lights Forecast?
Yes. Thanks to NASA’s space weather stations, the Earth’s geomagnetic activity can be predicted, although these predictions are less reliable than a normal weather forecast. Some websites even combine the aurora forecast with the local cloud cover forecast, giving a general prediction of future conditions.
How to Read the Icelandic Northern Lights Forecast
We recommend that you keep an eye on the Icelandic Met Office’s website while in Iceland. There, you can find a general weather forecast as well as the Northern Lights forecast. On the aurora forecast site, you can see a map of Iceland where the clouds will be marked in green and the clear sky in white.
By using the slider beneath the map, you can change the date and the time of the forecast, which is available for five days in advance. However, the further in the future you look, the less reliable the forecast will be. On the right side of the map, you can see the strength of solar activity as well as the times for the sunset and moonrise.
The activity number, called the KP index, shows the predicted strength of the aurora. A KP rating of zero to two is very low, offering almost no chance of seeing anything. Three and four are the most common numbers in Iceland and usually mean you’ll see good, strong lights when the sky is clear. Numbers from five to nine signify magnetic storms, which aren’t very common. KPs of five or six occur a few times each season, so they aren’t that rare. Geomagnetic storms over KP 7 are quite rare and would mean that the lights would be visible from countries that are much further south than Iceland.
How Long Should I Stay in Iceland to See the Northern Lights?
As mentioned above, the longer you stay, the better chance you’ll have. If you spend only 2–3 nights in Iceland, you’ll be less likely to see the lights since you could be unlucky with either the solar activity or the weather conditions.
However, if you stay in Iceland for 10–14 days during the aurora season, there’s a very good chance that the lights will appear at least one night under the right conditions. Of course, there’s no guarantee. You could even get lucky if you spend just one night in Reykjavík – who knows?
Where Is the Best Place to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?
In Iceland, there’s no best place to see the Northern Lights. No one place offers a better view of the aurora than others. Since this natural phenomenon appears in the sky, any place where you can see the sky is the best. For that reason, it’s a good idea to steer away from anywhere with tall buildings or mountains nearby that can block your view.
So, in short, Iceland as a whole is the ideal place to see the aurora. Traveling around the country in the right season is the best way to maximize your chances of seeing the lights. No matter where you stop for the night, you’ll have the ability to see the lights there if the conditions (solar activity and weather) allow it. If your accommodation is in a town or a city, it’s best to drive out of town and find a dark place to chase the lights.
If you don’t have a car, you can book a guided Northern Lights tour and leave yourself in the experienced hands of the locals. If your accommodation is in the countryside, you probably won’t even have to drive, you just have to walk out of the building and wait for the lights to appear.
Statistically, North Iceland receives less precipitation and, therefore, offers a higher chance of clear skies than the capital area and South Iceland. The dark periods in winter are longer here since this part of the country is closer to the Arctic Circle. The north sees significantly fewer visitors than the south, making it great for those who desire solitude.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula
West Iceland’s iconic peninsula is a great choice for those who don’t want to travel too far from Reykjavík but still want to see some unique natural attractions and enjoy the remoteness of the Icelandic countryside. The flat coastal areas with lovely hotels and guesthouses in the middle of nowhere offer an ideal base for aurora hunters.
The Icelandic Highlands
The most unique place to see the aurora from is certainly the Icelandic Highlands. This barren, uninhabited wilderness hides some incredible places from which you can watch the aurora while sitting in a hot spring like Landmannalaugar and Kerlingarfjöll. These places are only accessible via guided tours during the winter but are totally worth it, for sure.
As the most famous and most easily accessible area, South Iceland is also a great choice for aurora hunters. Even if you don’t see the lights, you’ll definitely be happy with the view. Iceland’s most famous natural attractions are waiting for you to visit them, and the Northern Lights might just be the cherry to top it all!
This is the least-visited area in all of Iceland, even though there’s so much to see here! Traveling in the east in winter is a truly authentic adventure that is highly recommended for those who like to explore off the beaten path.
What Are the Best Places to Photograph the Northern Lights?
All of Iceland is perfect for Aurora watching, but of course, some unique places are better than the rest. Amateur and professional photographers and engaged couples are always searching for the best possible locations, so here are a few tips for them.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
As Iceland’s crown jewel, this iceberg-filled glacier lagoon is the perfect location for photography, not just for the Northern Lights, but for any kind of photo. If the lights aren’t surreal enough, the floating icebergs will do the job.
This is a very popular aurora photo location thanks to the surface of the beach, which acts as a mirror during low tides, and the eye-catching silhouette of the mountains. Serving as another reason to travel eastwards for your Northern Lights hunt, this mountain is located in Southeast Iceland.
The Arctic Henge
North Iceland’s Arctic Henge is probably the most mystical location, not just as an aurora photo spot, but in general. The odd rock monuments may look ancient and surreal but, believe it or not, it’s a piece of modern art. An aurora photo could not be more mystical!
The famous arrowhead mountain from Game of Thrones is probably Iceland’s most photographed landmark. With the picturesque waterfalls in the foreground, Kirkjufell is an epic postcard picture opportunity. If you manage to take a picture of the Northern Lights here, you’re blessed, for sure!
Can I See the Aurora Borealis From Reykjavík?
While Reykjavík isn’t the best place to see the Northern Lights, it’s certainly not impossible to see them in the city. If you want to stay in Reykjavík, there are a few places that you can go to that offer a nice aurora-watching experience.
If there is a strong aurora, you’ll even be able to see the show from the center of town, despite the light pollution. If you are standing next to a street light, of course, the Northern Lights will seem much weaker than the same lights seen from a darker area. To improve your odds, there are some great places in Reykjavík with less light pollution that can offer better chances and a better experience.
At the edge of Reykjavík is a small peninsula. At the tip of this peninsula lies Grótta Lighthouse. The 180-degree panorama offered by this location plus the low levels of light pollution make this lighthouse one of the most popular sites for Northern Lights hunting in Reykjavík. You’ll find both locals and tourists in the evening here, gathered together in hopes of seeing this mythical phenomenon.
Harpa Conference Hall and the Sun Voyager
If you happen to be in the downtown area when the Northern Lights appear in the sky, the nearest place that you can head to escape the lights is the area on the coast next to Harpa Concert Hall or the “Sun Voyager,” a metal sculpture that is also on the coast.
This won’t work if the aurora is coming from the south because the city’s light pollution will cover the lights in that direction. If the aurora is coming from the north, though, you’ll be able to enjoy almost complete darkness as you’ll have nothing but the ocean in front of you.
One of Reykjavík’s most well-known museums is Perlan, also known as “The Pearl.” This museum can be found on top of a small hill that is covered with trees, offering a gorgeous view of the capital city. These trees, which make up part of Ösjkuhlíð Park, help to protect this location from the city’s light pollution, allowing visitors to have a great view of the aurora.
Reykjavík’s City Parks
There are several parks in Reykjavik that are great aurora view spots thanks to the lower light pollution. Although these are mainly forested places, there are a few spots here and there that provide a clear view of the sky.
What Did People Think About this Phenomenon in the Past?
The Northern Lights have always danced through the skies during the winter months near the Earth’s magnetic poles. Throughout the centuries, plenty of folktales and legends have emerged as people tried to explain the origins of this enigmatic phenomenon.
Around the end of the 19th century, when the true scientific explanation was finally discovered, these stories became legends. Before that, different tribes and countries all had their own explanations.
There is evidence that the aurora occurred closer to the equator. This is very rare but can happen after a particularly strong solar storm, which isn’t unheard of when the sun is in its more active periods. The term “Aurora Borealis” itself originates from old Greek. “Aurora” means “sunrise” and “Boreas” is the “north wind.” According to the ancient legends, Aurora was a goddess who danced across the sky in her colorful chariot to alert her siblings, Helios (the sun) and Selene (the moon) that dawn was approaching.
Naturally, Norse mythology is the richest source of folktales about the Northern Lights. The Vikings believed that Earth and Asgard (the home of the gods) were connected by an enormous bridge. Some Nordic tales suggest that the lights reflected off the armor of the Valkyrie, the magical female warriors who chose who would die in battle and who would live. Those who died in the battle rode to eternal life in Valhalla. The Northern Lights were the bridge from the Earth to the heavens.
Some European stories considered the lights to be a bad omen that forecasted either bad weather or the outbreak of a terrible event such as war, plague, or death. The Sami people believed that those who disrespected the Northern Lights would be attacked by the spirits and beaten to death. For this reason, every time the light appeared, the people had to stay inside and remain quiet until it was over.
The Swedish people saw the aurora as a portent of good news. They believed that the lights were reflections coming off large schools of herring, a gift from the gods that would provide a good harvest in the coming year.
The Finnish people believed that the lights were caused by an Arctic fox as it sped across a field covered by freshly fallen snow. As it ran, its tail would sweep the ground, throwing snow up into the air and causing the strange lights in the sky.
In Greenland, the lights were believed to be the souls of stillborn babies or those babies killed at birth.
Each North American tribe had its own myths regarding the aurora. Some held that it was the spirits of the dead, friends and relatives who were trying to communicate with those remaining on Earth. Another tribe believed that the lights were from a bonfire built by the Earth’s creator and that this was his way to assure his people that he was watching over them.
Many Eskimo groups in North America characterized the lights as playful spirits who they imagined to be playing a soccer-like game with walrus skulls. Some others believed that the Northern Lights came from the torches of friendly giants that were trying to light up the sea when fishing at night.
In Chinese culture, people believed that the strange lights appeared during celestial battles between good and evil dragons who breathed fire across the sky. The Japanese believed that a child conceived beneath the Northern Lights would be blessed with eternal luck, a good intellect, and beauty.
Are There Any Legends That Are Still Believed Today?
According to Icelandic folklore, the Northern Lights had the power to reduce the pain of a mother giving birth under their watch. Those same mothers had to be careful not to look at the aurora because it was believed that if they did so, their child would be born cross eyed. These legends were still believed until recently.
Many Asian people still believe that it’s good luck to conceive a child under the aurora, a belief that tends to be more and more popular, not only in Asia.
How Can I Prepare for a Northern Lights Hunt?
An Aurora hunt can take half a night or even an entire evening, which is why it’s important to be well prepared. Choosing the right clothes is very important as they will keep you warm during the long and mostly motionless wait.
In September and October, the nights aren’t extremely cold, but wearing multiple layers is still recommended as the wind can greatly affect your thermal comfort. During winter, between November and April, you’ll need the warmest clothing possible as the temperatures at night can easily drop below -10°C to -15°C (5–14°F).
What Should I Wear on a Northern Lights Tour in Iceland?
A well-insulated, wind- and rainproof winter parka or down jacket, a fleece or wool sweater, warm socks, and waterproof boots are definitely some of the must-have items for your hunt. You should either choose insulated trousers or wear long underwear underneath your trousers. Don’t forget to cover your head, neck, and hands.
If you’re traveling with kids, put high-visibility vests on them to keep them from getting lost in the dark. It’s also a good idea to have a tablet for them in case they lose interest and get bored. They can sit in the car and keep themselves entertained while you wait for the lights to appear.
What Should I Pack for a Northern Lights Hunt?
In winter, it’s a good idea to bring reusable hand warmers and a hot drink in a thermos to keep you warm and cozy. Don’t forget to pack some snacks as well!
You’ll probably need headlights. If you want to get away from any lights in the parking lot, you’ll need something to light up the path. You could also use your phone for this, but phone batteries die very quickly when it’s cold outside.
For the same reason, you’ll also need a charger for your phone and extra batteries for your camera as the cold makes all batteries die much faster than usual.
What Can I Do If I Don’t See the Lights?
There’s no way to guarantee that the Northern Lights will be visible during your trip to Iceland. If the lights aren’t visible during your trip, remember that this is a natural phenomenon. We can’t control nature, so it’s 100% normal.
If you’ve been unlucky and couldn’t see the Northern Lights in person, make the most of your time in Iceland and plan a visit to the planetarium in the Perlan Museum. At the planetarium, you can watch an impressive Northern Lights show in 8K resolution. Just 22-minutes long, this short but fascinating movie, set in Iceland’s most legendary landscapes, introduces the Northern Lights in an entertaining and educating way.
In Reykjavík, you can also visit the Aurora Museum. It has interactive displays, virtual reality glasses, and a multimedia exhibition. You should really try to visit one of these museums. Even if you’re lucky enough to see the aurora in the night sky, they’re a great way to learn more about this phenomenon.
The Northern Lights are nature’s mystical phenomenon and as such, we have no control over them. One of Iceland’s most attractive charms is that some of its secrets are simply not accessible to everyone. You might be among the lucky ones that will see them. Or perhaps you’ll find yourself booking your next flight as soon as you returned home because one visit simply wasn’t enough!