The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon which can paint the night sky with unearthly, surreal colours. The lights are a main attraction for many who travel to Iceland, but when is the best time to see them?
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What Are the Northern Lights?
Free particles get released from the sun’s surface when the sun is rotating and get through the holes in the magnetic field. When these electrically charged particles enter the earth’s atmosphere they collide with gas atoms causing them to energize, which results in a spectacular multi-colored light showcase in the earth's sky.
These collisions can be mostly seen from both the earth’s magnetic poles. This is the phenomenon that we call the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights.
The northern lights are similar to a sunset in the sky at night but occasionally appear in arcs or spirals, following the earth's magnetic field. They are most often light green in color but often have a hint of pink. Strong eruptions also have violet and white colors. Red northern lights are rare, but these can sometimes be observed at lower latitudes
The colour variations of the lights are caused by the different gas particles. The green colour is caused by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles (96km) above earth’s surface.
The more rare red-coloured auroras are also caused by oxygen molecules but are located much higher up in the atmosphere, at about 200 miles (320km).
Nitrogen molecules can produce blue or purplish-red auroras. It is more difficult to see the red coloured auroras with the naked eye and are more often better seen on photographs. They can also appear white, if many of the colours mix together or if they are faint.
When Is the Best Time to See the Lights?
The Northern Lights are visible from September to April. They are always present, but winter is the best time to see them, due to lower light pollution.
Iceland has an extreme difference with seasons when it comes to light. During summer, from mid-April to mid-August the sun doesn't dip below the horizon, keeping the sky is bright all day and night during this period. This is what we call the Midnight Sun. The sky is just not dark enough to see the Northern Lights even though they might be there.
During the darker months of winter, the sun barely rises over the horizon, making it possible to observe the lights. The darker the sky is the better the lights can be seen. The darkest months are from October-March but the lights can be equally as good in the months before and after you might just need to stay up later.
What Factors to Consider When Hunting the Lights?
One important factor is the strength of the lights. It depends on the recent activity of the sun and varies a lot. It is a good idea to check the forecast for the Icelandic Northern Lights the before heading out, however, they are not always 100% accurate.
The other important factor is the clouds. If the cloud cover is thick above they will block the lights from being seen. That is why the Northern Lights forecast site also shows the cloud cover forecast: the green patches are clouds an the white part means clear skies.
So three main things we want, dark skies, strong lights and no clouds! Check out our Northern Lights tour selection here We operate aurora tours from September to April.