The northern lights in Iceland is a huge reason for a lot of people coming to this country. I totally get it. Whenever I take a walk at night and see the shimmering beauty I am awestruck. My thoughts to the thousands of people who would be ready to be in my footsteps. And I realize how lucky I am to be here in Iceland.
Huge selection of northern lights tours
The northern lights are elusive but you can join a huge number of northern lights tours. Those creative folks in the travel industry have created northern lights tours with all kinds of flavors.
When to see the northern lights in Iceland?
The Icelandic northern lights season in Iceland starts early September and lasts until April. The northern lights can best be seen when the skies are clear and light pollution is low. That is the attraction of joining a tour, experienced guides will know the best places to see the lights. You can also rent a car and venture out on your own. But please be careful, make sure that the car you rent is ready for winter driving. If you are driving in Iceland in winter you must be ready to tackle icy or snowy roads.
Northern Lights forecast
But the northern lights are elusive and catching them is never a sure thing. You can increase your odds by consulting at the aurora forecast which is run by the Iceland Meteorological office or the aurora forecast by the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Remember that cloud cover is your worst enemy when catching the northern lights so make sure that you go out northern lights hunting when the skies are clear. My friend Sævar Helgi Bragason has created an online service with an accurate aurora forecast.
When is the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland?
The northern lights are of course not limited to winter but you can´t really see the aurora in the bright summer nights of late june or early July. I am often asked when is the best time to be in Iceland and I typically say early to middle of September. You may catch the northern lights and the weather can still be good. And the high season is over so the main attractions here in Iceland are less crowded. The northern lights season starts in September and ends in about mid april. The main problem for northern lights watching is the weather. You can have blazing northern lights but you see nothing when it is cloudy, raining or snowing.
What are the best locations for seeing the northern lights
Get out of any area with light pollution. There are ´islands of dark´ in Reykjavik such as the Elliðaárdalur valley, Öskjuhlíð hill or Grótta but I would get out of the city to maximize the chances of seeing the northern lights. Avoid nights with a full moon as it will diminish the light from the northern lights.
What are the northern lights?
Before scientists revealed that that the northern lights are the result of the interaction of high speed particles from the solar wind interacting with Earth’s protective magnetic field people believed all sorts of things about them. People in medieval Europe considered them harbingers of woe while other people in many different cultures considered them spirits of some sort. Vikings theorized they were glint of the armour of the valkyries. Now that is kind of cool idea actually!
No it is not valkyries. Unfortunately
Unfortunately the explanation for the northern lights is more pedestrian than spirits, valkyries or tidings of woe. As mentioned above the sun emits charged particles from its dark spots which travel more than 150 million before hitting Earths magnetic fields. They are are pulled toward the poles of the Earth and on their way they hit gasses in the atmosphere. Oxygene makes the northern lights green and yellow. Nitrogene makes them violet, blue and red. Strong flares of particles from the sun create massive, swirling northern lights. Weak flares result in a much less dramatic show. Iceland´s proximity to the north pole make it an ideal place for catching these excotic natural works of arts.
Stay safe when watching the northern lights
I know it sounds weird but safety needs to be considered for northern lights hunting. Too often I have been driving late at night and seen people on the road appear just in front of the car or at the side of the road. They are invisible as they wear no reflectors. Remember that in deep darkness of the Icelandic winter night you are invisible if you wear dark clothes. So please wear reflectors and avoid standing around on the road. Remember that the roads can be icy and cars may have difficulty stopping. Also remember that you go out northern lights hunting in winter it will be cold. Very cold. So think layers and dress warmly. Very warmly.
What if I don´t see the northern lights?
If you are out in the night with a clear sky and you don´t catch the northern lights. Don´t worry. Just look up and watch that incredible starlit sky and remember how fantastic it is to be in this beautiful country.