Northern Lights Guide:
All You Need to Know About Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland
When is the best Month to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?
There is no best month as such. However, November, February, March tends to have slightly better clear night sky conditions, whereas December and January can be stormy and snowy and therefore more clouded.
The best season to see the northern lights in Iceland is from September to mid-April – these 8 months are where we have long dark nights. So if you are in Iceland in any of these months, you are likely to see some aurora activity – it just depends on your luck, the weather and solar activity.
What are the Chances of Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland?
The longer you stay, the better your chances are of seeing them. You have to be realistic and patient if you want to see the Northern Lights. You need these 3 basic things: Clear night sky, aurora activity, and good timing. In fact, you can compare it a little bit to seeing a rainbow: you never know exactly when or where they will happen.
Planning a tour to Iceland to see the Northern Lights? In this guide, we have collected all the facts and tips on how to prepare and what to expect.
When you say Iceland, you say Northern Lights. Although heavily advertised the Northern Lights are more tricky and elusive than you might think. In other words, buying a plane ticket to Iceland does not guarantee that you will see the Northern Lights. It takes patience, timing, and warm clothing! We will explain why.
Do the Northern Lights appear every night?
Hear it from a local: NO! In fact very far from every night! Sometimes we don’t see them for weeks. So you have to be realistic and patient when you plan a tour to Iceland. And whilst we are at: there are NO polar bears in Iceland either. If you have the luxury of being spontaneous then keep yourself updated on the weather an aurora forecast and come last minute and be flexible. Travel in a symbiosis with the weather and cloud cover. This will increase your chances a lot. You can follow the forecast here at the National Icelandic Weather Service: www.vedur.is
The 10 Things No One Tells You About the Northern Lights in Iceland
1. Go for the destination – Not for the Northern Lights. You have to be realistic and patient when you plan a tour to Iceland. Don’t have the northern lights this as your sole purpose to come to Iceland. There are so many beautiful things to see in Iceland, so book or plan a tour that also includes the beautiful nature, a glacier hike, snowmobiling, ice caving, skiing, etc. and then consider the Northern Lights a bonus. In this way you will not go home disappointed.
2. The Northern Lights are VERY Unpredictable. You can come armed with as many online forecasts and apps predicting the aurora activity level as you like. But in the end you are dealing with Mother Nature. Even with the perfect forecast on level 5 and a clear sky we sometimes don’t see anything. And then other times when the forecast says 0 the northern lights turn up with a brilliant show. Remember, we need solar flares on the sun or solar wind as the Aurora Borealis happens when particles from the sun enter Earth’s atmosphere and collide violently with gas atoms. And that takes a lot of right timing to be visible for us. So basically if you have a dark, clear night anywhere from 6 pm to 6 am anything can happen – or not happen. But then you have all the stars and a big window to look into the universe, which is also quite amazing…
3. The Weather in the Arctic can Change in the Blink of an Eye. It is sometimes easy for foreigners to forget that Iceland is part of the Arctic. But for every Icelander, it runs in their blood to respect the weather and always be prepared for the worst. The weather is just as notoriously unpredictable as the Northern Lights themselves. It’s not unusual to have sunshine, clouds, rain, sleet, hail, snow and high winds all in the same day – even within 5 minutes. So if you wake up to a beautiful day of clear skies and jolly weather, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will stick around and wait for the Northern Lights to come out. And of course, this also counts for the opposite. It may snow all day and be cloudy, but just as you have put your pyjamas on and are ready for bed, then suddenly the sky opens up and the Northern Lights come out to play.
4. You have to put effort into seeing the Northern Lights. Just travel to Iceland and you will see the lights! Many people have the idea that it is like flipping a switch and then you will see the Northern Lights. But trust us on this one, you can’t be lazy if you want to see the Northern Lights. You need to invest patience, focus and effort. We don’t mean to discourage you, just be very honest that it is not that easy and never a guarantee. Booking a Northern Lights tour is no guarantee either. However, most tours will give you a second chance. We prefer to do tours that also include another activity so you don’t waste your time. A crucial thing is to get away from the light pollution. Even if you are in Reykjavik, it is easy to find a dark spot. Our favorite tip is to get a taxi to Grotta lighthouse – this is a very romantic place to scout for the lights. So keep an eye on the forecast and the sky and rush out there if you see any sign of activity. If you are doing a self-drive tour we recommend to stay in the countryside on a local farm or summer house. In this way, you can control how much you want to invest in scouting. If you are staying at a hotel ask if they have a Northern Lights service where they wake you up in case of activity.
Science is science. If the conditions aren’t right then you are simply not going to see the Northern Lights. They are completely reliant on gasses and solar flares and a clear night sky. So praying, wishing, or sacrificing hamsters to the Pagan gods will not get you far… Oh, how we would wish we could predict them far in advance and tell you YES they will be dancing all over your fixed-long-weekend in December 2019 at 9 PM. But unfortunately not… we are working on it though, and we will let you know how it goes!
6. The GOOD NEWS: YES You Can See the Northern Lights from Reykjavik We live in downtown Reykjavik and yes we do see the Northern Lights dance above our heads. So you don’t have to book a tour to see them – just don’t forget to look up and if you see any activity rush to a dark spot. We can recommend Arnarholl – the hill with the Viking Statue across from Harpa Music Hall. We have seen great lights from there. But our favorite tip is to jump into a taxi and go to Grotta lighthouse – this is a very romantic place to scout for the lights. If you are staying at a hotel with a rooftop terrace this could also be a great spot to scout them. So always keep an eye on the forecast and the sky!
7. How to Spot Aurora Activity. They aurora activity usually start out very faint, almost like a white stream of fog. If in doubt you can always point your camera at the sky and do a long exposure shot. Your camera will detect the light much better than your naked eye and come out as green light = Northern Lights.
8. Will the Full Moon affect the Northern Lights? We have seen amazing Northern Lights and full moons alongside each other, so don’t worry too much about the lunar phase. But if you must then you can find the moon-phase calendar right here: Moon-phase Just remember you can read and study all you want, but Mother Nature is always the boss and only she can decide when to turn those lights on or not. So what is most important is that you are alert and responsive to nature.
9. How to Photograph the Northern Lights You have seen grand pictures of the Northern Lights. Behind every picture is a bunch of luck, cold hours of waiting and being in the right spot at the right time. The simple answer is:
- Use a tripod.
- Long shutter speed 15-30 seconds.
- Wide open aperture F2.8 or your fastest setting.
- Bump up your ISO to around 1600
- Take plenty of batteries for your camera.
Play around with the settings depending on how fast the auroras are moving. If slow use ISO400 and 10-30 seconds. If they are fast moving auroras use ISO 1600-3200 and 3-8 seconds. A long exposure on fast moving auroras will capture a huge green blur. It is very rare to see colours with the naked eye so look for anything that looks like a light grey cloud moving across the sky in strange patterns. Don’t wait until you see colours, just click away.
10. Dress to Impress
Remember: It will be winter! You will be cold! So dress warm – meaning lots of layers – long underwear, cotton and wool socks, form-fitting shirts and pants, topped off with insulated wind-and-waterproof outerwear. In other words wear your warmest clothes, mittens, hat, scarf, etc.
Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis Q & A
Q: What are the Northern lights?
A: The Northern Lights is basically collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere and then result in stretching streams of light in up to five different colours – green, blue, purple, red, and yellow. The Northern lights are also known as Aurora Borealis when it occurs above the North Pole and Aurora Australis when it occurs above the South Pole. It is known as one of the most spectacular natural phenomena on the planet.
Q: What causes the Northern lights?
A: The Northern lights is the result of a solar storm hitting earth, which occurs when billions of tonnes of plasma is ejected from the sun towards earth, traveling 149.6 million km in only 18 hours! When these charged particles enter Earth’s atmosphere and collide with different gasses they create the separate colors.
Q: Why Do the Northern Lights only occur at the two Poles?
A: This is due to the Earth’s magnetic field, which encompasses use and stretches thousands of kilometers into space, shielding us from all sorts of harmful things coming from space including solar storms. However, at the two poles, the magnetic field has a weak spot and some electrically charged particles are able to enter into Earth’s atmosphere here.
Q: Which colors can the Northern lights appear in?
A: The Northern Lights can appear in many different colors; Most commonly green, which is caused by collisions with Oxygen particles at an altitude of 120km to 180km as well as red, which is caused by higher altitude collisions of up to 320km. Even blue colors can be observed in the Aurora Borealis at times, which is caused by collisions with Nitrogen particles at an altitude of lower than 120km!
Q: Where is the best place to watch the Northern lights?
A: In Europe, the most common locations to visit to view the Aurora Borealis is in Iceland as well as Northern Scandinavia. Essentially the closer you can get to the Pole the more vivid and intense your experience will be. Keep in mind that the levels of light pollution have to be as low as possible so the only thing lighting up the sky is the Aurora Borealis. Iceland offers thousands of square kilometers without a light in sight, a website to help you find a dark spot is: http://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html
Q: When would be the best time to see the Aurora Borealis in Iceland?
A: The perfect time to plan a trip to see the Northern lights in Iceland would be from Autumn, late August, all the way through to Spring, April, while we have longer darker periods to make the lights more profound. There are also periods where the Northern Lights are more intense which is when another phenomenon called solar cycles occurs. These are periods of higher activity in the sun in which more charged particles are released towards the earth. Solar cycles usually occur in 11-year cycles and can last from 9 to 14 years and the last one began in 2014, meaning these coming years are the perfect ones to view the lights!