The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is an extraordinary natural phenomenon which appears in the night sky around the Earth’s poles. When active, the surreal occurrence lights up the dark sky, forming all kinds of shapes while painting the night sky in dreamlike colors. It is not surprising that seeing the Aurora is the main attraction for many who travel to Iceland.
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The Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis, Explained
Catching the Northern lights is, however, a gift that is not given to everyone who visits Iceland. It takes planning, understanding, patience, monitoring of the conditions, and, of course, luck. Read our comprehensive guide and get to know what the mystical lights really are, what causes them, and where and when is the best to see them. You will also find out what you can do to maximize your chances of being successful. By reading this guide, you will become a skilled Aurora hunter before you have even entered Iceland!
What Are the Northern Lights?
The Auroras - also called the Northern Lights, the Southern Lights, or the Polar Lights - are a natural phenomenon which appears in the sky in high-latitude regions near the Antarctic and Arctic Circles.
Most often, the Polar Lights appear in a band called the "auroral zone." They can be mostly seen from above the 60th parallel in the north and below the 60th parallel in the south. When seen from space, they circle the Poles like giant halos. In the Northern Hemisphere, these lights are called the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis while in the Southern Hemisphere they are referred to as the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis. When active, the lights usually appear in both hemispheres at the same time creating similar patterns and colors in a mirror-like phenomenon.
The Polar Lights very rarely occur in lower latitudes. They can, however, happen once in a while after a particularly strong geomagnetic storm. This is extremely rare, though, only happening once a decade at most.
What causes the Northern Lights?
According to scientists, the Polar Lights are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles traveling with the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere.
On the surface of the Sun, gas molecules are highly explosive due to the incredible heat. Thanks to their extremely high energy, these highly charged electrons and protons are able to escape the Sun's gravity. Hot plasma is released from the Sun’s atmosphere from time to time and is blown into space, traveling towards the Earth at supersonic speeds. This is what we call solar wind.
When the solar wind reaches our planet, it crashes into the Earth’s magnetic field. Before the charged particles can enter our atmosphere, the magnetosphere deflects the majority of them. Some particles manage to escape and get through the magnetic field in the areas where it is weaker, such as around the magnetic poles.
Then, upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the Sun’s particles interact and collide with gas atoms. This interaction causes the emission of energy and light, resulting in what we perceive as the spectacular multi-colored light show in the night sky. Allegedly, the Polar Lights can even make an ethereal noise that can be heard by sensitive microphones.
What causes the different colors, shapes, and intensities?
The lights are sometimes a diffuse glow with no distinctive shape, just a faint hue similar to a sunset. Sometimes they appear as curtains, stripes, arcs or curves following the along the Earth's magnetic field. Sometimes they occur overhead as a corona of rays radiating from a distant and apparent central location.
At times they are almost completely motionless without changing much in shape or strength for ten minutes or longer. Other times, when the solar wind is very strong, the Aurora moves quickly, curving, dancing, and flickering impressively.
The shape of the Auroras is determined by the Earth's magnetic field. As the electrons enter the atmosphere and move towards the surface, they are guided by the magnetosphere and this results in what we see as different shapes. A typical auroral display consists of many different forms throughout the night.
Duration and Activity
The Aurora can have high levels of activity for hours but can also disappear at any time. Sometimes, it appears for only a few minutes and then goes away.
The activity of the Aurora reflects both solar activity and the Earth’s geomagnetic activity. During magnetic storms, the solar flows can be several times faster than usual. The Earth’s magnetic field is also in constant movement, sometimes much stronger than usual. Scientists are constantly researching the correlation of these factors to understand the phenomena better.
The Auroras are most often light greenish in color with a hint of white and pink. The color of the lights depends on what types of molecules collide and how high in the atmosphere the collision takes place.
- Green is the most common color. It is caused by the high concentration oxygen atoms at lower altitudes, 96 kilometers (60 miles) above the surface of the Earth. Also, our eyes are more sensitive to green, which makes it even more commonly perceived.
- Red, which is quite rarely perceived, is caused by oxygen molecules very high up in the atmosphere, at about 320 kilometers (200 miles). The lower sensitivity of eyes to this wavelength makes red visible only during periods of very intense solar activity.
- Blue light occurs at even lower altitudes when nitrogen takes over in producing visible light and radiating mostly blue wavelengths from the spectrum. Blue and purple emissions only occur during the highest levels of solar activity, making them quite rare.
- Yellow and pink auroras are a mix of red and green or blue.
- White is what we perceive if many of the colors mix together or if they are very strong.
Folklore and Legends
According to archeologists, the Northern Lights were first documented in the Stone Age with carvings found in a cave in France. The word Aurora Borealis itself originates from the Greek words “Aurora” meaning “sunrise” and “boreas” meaning “wind.” There must have been some incredibly strong solar activity at that time because sightings so far south are almost unheard of. Yet it seems that the ancient Greeks saw them often enough to create and preserve legends related to the Aurora. According to the ancient Greek stories, Aurora was a goddess, the sister of Helios, the sun, and Seline, the moon. She would dance across the sky in her colorful chariot to alert her siblings to the dawn.
Other European legends, including some French stories, considered the lights a bad omen that forecasted the outbreak of a terrible event such as war, plague or death. In Sweden, however, the Aurora was seen as a portent of good news. They believed that the lights were a gift from the gods that provided warmth, light, large shoals of herring, and a good harvest in the coming year.
In the Chinese culture, people believed that these rare 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 lights would be blessed with eternal luck, a good intellect, and beauty. Indian tributes consider the lights to be spirits of the dead trying to communicate with the friends and families they have left behind.
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.
Naturally, the Northern Lights feature most prominently in Norse mythology. One legend suggests that the lights came from the shields of the Valkyrie, the female warriors of Norse mythology. The night before a battle, they would ride across the sky, deciding who would win and who would lose. Those who died would ride with the warriors to eternal life in Valhalla. The lights themselves, as the reflection of the armor, was the bridge to the heavens.
Until not so long ago, Icelandic folklore suggested that giving birth under the lights would relieve the pain of delivery. However, pregnant mothers were not supposed to look at the Aurora because the child would be born cross-eyed.
Throughout the centuries, people have created many different stories and explanations for the origins of these strange lights with new stories overwriting the old ones until the end of the 19th century when the true scientific explanation was finally discovered.
What are the optimal conditions for seeing the Northern Lights?
To see the Northern Lights, you will need to consider quite a lot of factors and act according to their correlations. The first and foremost among these are the location and the time. You need to be at the right place at the right time and stay there long enough to maximize your chances. You will need to find the right spot from which you can see the most.
Location: The Auroral Zone
The first thing you can do is to come to Iceland! It is one of the best places in the world to see the Auroras. Iceland is perfectly positioned in the Auroral Zone and offers the chance to see the Northern Lights 7 to 8 months per year!
Aurora viewing is possible through all of autumn and winter, which lasts from about mid-August until mid-April. The edges of the seasons are, however, not the best time to catch the Northern Lights. The time in this period between sunset and sunrise is too short and it may not even be completely dark. This makes weaker lights hard to detect while waking up to see the lights may be much more tiring.
The main viewing season is from October to March. The nights are pitch black and last 10 to 20 hours. December and January are the darkest months. You can go out to check for the lights at 5 o’clock in the afternoon or at 10 o’clock in the morning. You can also go out, of course, all evening and all night long in between. Your chances are ten times better in mid-winter than at the edges of the seasons.
Solar Activity: High
The Earth is constantly immersed in solar wind whose strength is forever changing. The Polar Lights become visible when the solar activity is high enough to produce strong light emission in our magnetosphere.
Whether the lights will be visible or not depends on many of the factors explained above, but one thing that is definitely needed is high solar activity. This factor is quite unpredictable, but there are Aurora forecast sites and applications (listed below) that predict solar activity a few days in advance.
Weather: Clear Sky
Once you are in Iceland, remember to closely monitor the weather forecast. It does not matter how strong the geomagnetic storm is if the sky is covered by thick clouds. You do not need a completely clear sky. A few clouds will not ruin the experience if there is an active show happening, but a cohesive layer of clouds will make it impossible to see anything.
Light Conditions: The Darker, The Better
If the skies are clear and the forecast is promising, the only thing you need to do is to find the best spot to enjoy the lights from. This means getting out of the light-polluted areas, cities, and towns. The darker the surrounding area is, the better your eyes will be able to perceive the lights.
Location: A Flat Area or a Viewpoint
The best thing to do is to find a flat area or a higher viewpoint where there are no mountains or high buildings blocking the view. Sometimes, the Aurora appears very low, close to the horizon. It is important to find a place where you have a clear view of the sky.
Safety: A Secure Parking Space
The right spot needs to be safe as well. You cannot just park on the side of the road in the dark. This is very dangerous. People have died in accidents in Iceland while Aurora hunting. You need to find a safe parking place where you can leave your car and walk around in the darkness without putting yourself or others in danger.
Catching the Invisible: Bring a Camera
If you are not lucky and cannot really see any lights, they may still be there, but not visible. Sometimes, when they are too weak for the naked eye to observe, cameras still can catch the lights by using long exposures. For this, you will need a good camera and a tripod.
The Luck Factor
You may come across a glimpse of the lights in the middle of the city, surrounded by street lights and high buildings. This can happen anywhere and at anytime. The surprise factor can be just as strong as a solar storm, so do not forget to look up at the sky!
Northern Lights Tours in Iceland
If you do not want to bother checking the forecast and searching for the right spot in an unfamiliar land, you can simply let go and leave it to the professionals. On a guided Northern Lights tour, experienced locals will use their knowledge and local wisdom to help you maximize your chances for success.
Seeing the Aurora Borealis on a Guided Tour
Local tour guides have a lot of experience and are familiar with both the conditions and the terrain. They know the best viewpoints and the safest parking places. They also have a special license to drive safely in wintery conditions and may even offer you some hot chocolate while you are waiting for the show the begin. Many offer photography during the tour as well.
Northern Lights tours begin in September and run continuously throughout the winter until the middle of April. The location of the tours is chosen based on the actual cloud cover and the Aurora forecast. If the conditions are unfavorable, the tour will be canceled and you will get the chance to rebook on another date or to get a full refund. They will not take you out if there is no chance of seeing the lights.
Northern Lights Tour Options
There are plenty of amazing options to choose from. You can take a classic Northern Lights minibus tour, a regular bus tour, or, for even more fun, go on a Superjeep tour or a boat ride. The best thing to do is to combine your Aurora tour with other fun activities such as a Golden Circle tour, a South Coast sightseeing tour, a snowmobiling tour, or a caving tour. You can even bathe in a hot spring while watching the Northern Lights! If you prefer to share the experience with your loved ones only, you can book a private Aurora tour that has been customized for you.
For those who would like to get the most of their stay, we recommend the multi-day tours that take you to lesser-known areas and that give you the opportunity to witness the light show during any day of your travels while you explore Iceland’s charming countryside and famously stunning natural attractions.
The Northern Lights on a Self-Guided Tour
If you have a rental car and are a skilled driver, you can also head out to find the lights on your own. The road conditions in Iceland can be challenging in winter, even in good weather. Driving in the dark on snowy, icy roads is only recommended for those who have a lot of experience in those conditions.
Insider Tips for Self-Guided Tours
Due to the unpredictable nature of the Auroras, there is no specific place in Iceland that is the best for seeing the lights. Anywhere far from city lights is good. We do, however, strongly recommend that you do a bit of research before heading out into the dark.
For everyone’s safety, you are advised to locate a safe parking place where you can exit your car and walk around safely in the darkness. It is likely that you will spend long hours waiting and then may get very excited or distracted when the Auroras appear. Stopping on the side of the road is illegal and has the potential to be very dangerous.
To find a safe spot with a spacious parking area that is far enough from traffic, you must plan ahead. It is preferable to check out the place in the daylight before heading out at night as finding a safe parking area in the dark is much more difficult.
For your self-guided tour, you might want to pack a thermos with some hot liquids, pocket warmers, and headlights so that you can inspect the area if you decide to walk away from your car a bit.
The Best Aurora Watching Locations
Why is Iceland the Best Country to See the Northern Lights?
As explained above, the auroras only appear near the poles or occasionally, when an especially strong geomagnetic storm hits the Earth’s atmosphere, they may appear in lower latitudes. This, however, only happens once a decade or even less.
Iceland, which sits between the 63° and 66° latitude north, is perfectly positioned. It offers the chance to see the lights 7 - 8 months per year.
The best inhabited places to watch the lights in North America can be found in the northern parts of Canada and Alaska. Aurora borealis can also be seen over Greenland, Iceland, northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and northern Siberia. Southern auroras, however, are quite rarely seen as they are concentrated around uninhabited Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean.
From all of these places, Iceland is the most ideal travel destination for a Northern Lights tour as, of all the options, it is the least cold. Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream that flows around the island, Iceland’s climate is much milder than would be expected from its location.
The temperatures in Reykjavík rarely fall below -5°C (23°F) in wintertime, unlike in north Canada, Norway, or Greenland where it can fall from -20 to -30°C (-4 to -22°F). Norway and Finland are somewhat milder, but Iceland is by far the warmest of the Aurora countries.
What is the best place to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
This question is quite common. It may, however, make a local smile if they hear it. As explained above, there is no specific place where the lights look better than somewhere else. The Aurora display takes place in the sky, therefore any place where you have a good view of the sky is perfect. It is good to avoid the places with tall mountains or buildings around. It is also advisable to leave any lit up areas behind. You will need complete darkness.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Flat areas are often close to sea coasts as in, for example, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. There are some lovely countryside hotels and guesthouses in the middle of nowhere which are perfect locations for watching the light show. On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula Aurora tour, you have a very good chance of seeing the lights, if they are active.
North Iceland is known for having long dark periods in winter while having statistically more dry weather and fewer clouds than other parts of the country. It is also somewhat closer to the Arctic Circle. These features make North Iceland an excellent Aurora watching location.
The Icelandic Highlands
The Icelandic Highlands are completely uninhabited and getting there in winter is only possible by specialized Superjeeps. It is hard to imagine any place that could be more peaceful for watching the Northern Lights than Landmannalaugar, where you can enjoy the show while sitting in a geothermal hot spring.
All Around Iceland
Traveling around Iceland in winter may be the best thing to do to maximize your chances of seeing the lights. The more time you spend in Iceland and the more you travel, the more chances you will have, for sure! Self-driving in winter requires a lot of good experience in wintery road conditions. Otherwise, you can join a local tour and enjoy the trip without having to drive on ice.
Where is the best place to see the lights in Reykjavík?
If you prefer to stay in the city and find a nice Aurora watching spot inside Reykjavík, you still have a few options. In fact, if the Aurora is strong enough, you will even be able to see the lights from the middle of the city from next to a street light! It will, of course, be much weaker than if you had seen it from a darker spot, however. To maximize your chances and get the best out of the experience, you can still find some nice spots in town where the light pollution is lower and your chances will be better.
At the very tip of Seltjarnarnes, the small peninsula at the edge of Reykjavík, there is a lighthouse called Grótta. You can get there on foot, it is a 5 to 6 kilometer (3 - 3.7 mile) walk one way from the downtown area. In good weather, this is a beautiful coastal walk. Alternatively, you can rent a bike, take the bus, or take a taxi. This spot is the most popular Aurora hunting location in Reykjavík because there is a panorama of at least 180 degrees with very low light pollution. Many locals and tourists gather there in the evening to search for the lights.
Harpa Conference Hall
If you are downtown and you suddenly see the lights, the closest place to go to escape from the street lights would be the coastal area near Harpa Concert Hall. This, however, will not work if the lights appear from the south because the city’s light pollution comes from the south. If the lights appear from the north, you will have almost complete darkness as only the sea will be in front of you.
Perlan, or “The Pearl,” is one of the most famous museums in Reykjavík. It is a glass dome that rests on top of six warm water tanks which store most of Reykjavík's hot water. Perlan sits on the top of a hill, providing an outstanding view of the capital. Even though there would be some light pollution from the city, the small surrounding forest, Ösjkuhlíð Park, shields the spot from the city lights, making it a great place for Aurora hunting.
Reykjavík’s City Parks
There are several parks in Reykjavik that offer great spots thanks to their lower light pollution. The four largest city parks are Hljómskálagarður, Klambratún, Laugardalur, and Elliðaárdalur. Hljómskálagarður is literally only a few steps away from the city center while Klambratún is a bit further away (15 minutes on foot).
Laugardalur and Elliðaárdalur are much larger parks than the first two, but they are also much further away (10-15 minutes by car). All of these parks are excellent places to watch the night skies in the city as they offer large darker areas away from the street lights.
Heiðmörk Nature Reserve
Heiðmörk is a wonderful nature reserve and recreational area on the outskirts on Reykjavík, outside of the city lights. With its 3,200 hectares (7,900 acres) it offers a vast dark area for Aurora watchers.
Northern Lights Season in Iceland
Iceland is located just off the Arctic Circle and therefore has the characteristics of the Arctic. We have very bright summers with midnight sun and very dark winters where the sun barely manages to climb over the horizon for a short time each day. This means that the lights cannot be detected in summer, as the sky is too bright and outshines the Auroras. The proper Aurora season in Iceland is therefore winter.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
The ultimate Northern Lights season is between September and March. The most ideal time to see the lights, however, is mid-winter between November and February. The reason for this is that the nights are the longest during this period, which means that you can easily catch the Aurora in the morning or in the afternoon without the need to stay up all night.
Between mid-November and mid-January, the nights are completely dark for 12 to 13 hours with the addition of a few hours of dark twilight periods in the mornings and in the evenings. This means that the larger part of the day is suitable for watching the phenomena - if conditions allow. Statistically, this is by far the best time to see the lights in Iceland.
Can I see the Northern Lights in spring?
There is no classic spring in Iceland. With very cold temperatures and a lot of snow, March and April still count as winter. However, this is the brighter part of the winter, as the daylight time period grows to last over 12 hours from mid-March. It is still possible to see the lights, but you will need to stay up late at night as the dark period starts at around 10 o’clock at night with the sun setting 3 to 4 minutes later every single day. From mid-April, there is no complete darkness at night. This means that you can no longer see the Aurora Borealis from the middle of April.
Can I see the Northern Lights in summer?
No, you cannot. As explained above, the nights are not dark in summer. In fact, there is midnight sun from May to July. From mid-August, however, the nights begin to get darker again and there is a short period during the night when you may be able to catch the dancing lights. The dark periods grow several minutes longer every day, which means that the later in August you come, the greater chances you will have of seeing something.
Can I see the Northern Lights in autumn?
Yes! September is the time when the season kicks in. In mid-September, the period of complete darkness is 5 hours long and the twilight period adds 2 to 3 more hours of relative darkness. The daylight periods are shorter every day as the nights grow longer. Until mid-October, the darkness will grow to last 9 hours and continues to grow rapidly as we enter winter. Autumn is a great time for those who want to have a good chance to see them and to travel a bit in the county to see more of the Icelandic landscapes.
At around what time do the Northern Lights appear in the sky?
To a local, this question may sound a bit silly, but we understand why you would ask it. If you have read our article through, by now you know more about the nature of the Northern Lights and you understand why this question is so difficult to answer. Every instance of solar and geomagnetic activity is different and makes it impossible to predict when the Aurora lights will happen - if they happen at all.
On the other hand, the time when it will be dark is different each month, so there is no general answer to the question. One thing you can do is to check when it will get dark because that will definitely be needed in order to see anything. Allegedly, most Aurora detections take place in the evening between 10 o’clock and midnight, but the only reason for this is probably that more people tend to look at the sky at that time than after midnight. Most people tend to need sleep more than they need to watch Auroras.
The Northern Lights Forecast
There are plenty of tools and websites where you can check the Northern Lights forecast, but there is no point in downloading all of them as most applications rely on the same NASA space weather forecast.
There are Northern Lights Alert Facebook groups in Iceland and many hotels and guest houses offer alert services to their guests. If you book a multi-day Northern Lights tour with us, you can request this service as well.
What are the best forecast tools?
First and foremost, we recommend that you check our very own page for the Icelandic Northern Lights forecast. Here you will see how the conditions are right now as well as how they will be over the next few days. The data is based on the Icelandic Meteorological Office. It displays both the cloud cover over the country and the strength of the solar activity.
The green patches on the map show where the clouds are and the white parts show clear skies. The strength of the activity can be found as a numerical value. The number is usually between two and four, which is quite normal in Iceland.
Zero to two is very low and five to nine signifies magnetic storms. Three and four are the most common numbers and usually mean that you will be able to see the lights if the sky is clear. These numbers can change radically throughout the day, however, and are not very reliable. We once saw it change from nine to zero in only half an hour. At other times we have still been able to see the lights when the prediction was at zero.
We also recommend the following applications:
- Northern Lights Alerts for iOS devices
- My Aurora Forecast
- Space Weather Live website an app
- Northern Lights Forecast
How to Dress for a Northern Lights Tour
Prepare yourself for the Icelandic weather. Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream that flows around Iceland, it is much more pleasant than other countries at the same latitude. But, being at 65° North, the winter is pretty cold.
Choose the right clothing to make the time that you spend waiting for the auroras to appear much more comfortable. It will be easier to tolerate the wait in the darkness if you are wearing the appropriate clothing. This is especially true since you will be standing around with very little activity while you wait.
Your outer layer should be warmly insulated and windproof. Also necessary are a windproof hat and gloves, a cozy scarf and a good pair of warm, sturdy, waterproof boots. Reusable pocket warmers are a great item to have on hand during the long waiting period.
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
Under the best of circumstances, your photos will always serve as a reminder of this amazing adventure. Getting that perfect shot is also a sure way to light up your social media feed with likes and comments about your Icelandic getaway.
Photographing the Aurora is not as easy as you might think. Your photo shoot will take place in complete darkness. Therefore, the shots will need an exposure of at least a few seconds, making a tripod a must. Getting a perfect picture of the lights with a handheld camera is impossible.
As a technical tip, cold temperatures can cause batteries to drain very quickly, especially in dark places where long exposures are required. That is why we strongly recommend that you pack extra batteries for your camera as the temperature during winter nights can fall quite low.
Wide-angle lenses, if possible, are recommended for picture taking as they let in as much light as possible while allowing as much of the scene into the frame as possible. Before trying to take a picture with anyone in it, try to light them up using a headlamp or other light source. Remember that during a long exposure, they will have to stand completely still so as not to result in a blurry image.
Finally, a remote shutter release or a self-timer function on your camera can be very useful for this kind of picture. A high ISO can make your pictures very grainy. While an ISO of over 400-600 can make your pictures grainy on cheaper cameras, more expensive professional cameras can handle much higher ISO settings.
Pro Tips for Photographing the Aurora
- A DSLR / 35mm camera
- Manual mode functionality
- High ISO performance (up to 3000-5000 without producing much graininess)
- An ultra-wide angle zoom lens
- A tripod
- Remote controller
- Extra batteries
- A light source (flashlight, lantern, or headlamp)
Do not worry if you do not have all of the specialized camera gear. Even if you do not have an expensive camera, lens, or tripod, you can still go on a tour where the professional local guide will be able to take a picture of you with a suitable camera.
But, remember that there is no camera that can capture the feeling of being in that incredible atmosphere or seeing the lights firsthand. It is just a tool to help you remember the experience of a lifetime.
We know how beautiful it can be when a dream such as seeing the Northern Lights finally comes true. We can only imagine your disappointment if you have to leave the country without being successful. Iceland is a mysterious land and does not hand out its precious beauties to everyone. Iceland will make sure that you want to come back again and again by helplessly enchanting your mind. Do not be sad if it does not happen for you, but smile for the many wonders you have seen and experienced in Iceland instead. We wish you an amazing trip and good luck with your Northern Lights hunt!