Spotting the Northern Lights in Iceland

The auroras over Öxarárfoss Waterfall

The chance to see the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, is among the top reasons why travellers visit Iceland during the winter months. But what causes this incredible natural phenomena, and how can you maximise your chances of seeing them? Read more on the best tips and tricks for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland.

There are few experiences in this world more memorable than seeing that most fantastical of cosmic light shows – the Aurora Borealis!  

Green northern lights above a lake in Iceland
Photo: Golli. The auroras can appear in many forms and colours

Unpredictable, otherworldly, sometimes fleeting – it is a happenstance as capable of surprising unsuspecting travellers as it is appearing exactly when forecasted. 

With that in mind, the Northern Lights should be considered a true force of nature; something that cannot be tamed, nor delivered at will. Regardless, their appearance in the night sky brings about a lasting gratitude to all those lucky who see them. 

So, before we offer any useful tips on how best to catch them, let’s first go into a brief explanation of just what these lights are. 

What are the Northern Lights? 

Northern Lights over a lake
Photo: Golli. Northern lights over lake Þingvallavatn

Aside from being a visual delight, the science behind why the Northern Lights appear is compelling. This phenomena happens when charged particles originating from the sun – known as a solar wind – make their way towards the Earth’s magnetic field. The majority of these particles are deflected back into space, but some manage to break through. 

The protons and electrons that make it inside collide with atmospheric gases made up from oxygen and nitrogen particles, resulting in something called ionisation. This collision strips the gas of its electrons, if only temporarily. 

 

As these ionised particles recoup their electrons, a cosmic dance of colour ensues. In fact, many observers are unaware that the exact shades on display can be traced back to which gases are regathering electrons; oxygen produces green and red light, and nitrogen produces pink, blue, and purple light. As to exactly what colours can be seen, and how intensely, largely depends on the strength of the solar wind, and the altitude at which the ionisation process occurs. 

The Aurora Borealis happens close to the planet’s magnetic poles – or polar regions – typically above a latitude of 60-75 degrees north and below 60-75 degrees south. With that knowledge, it stands to reason that the Northern Lights can be seen in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Canada, Alaska, Russia, and, of course, Iceland. 

So, as you might expect, there is such a thing as the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis. For anyone planning a trip after Iceland, you can expect to see them in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Argentina, and the Falkland Islands.

The Northern Lights in Norse Mythology

 


Of course, with the advent of modern scientific knowledge, our understanding of the Northern Lights and why they occur is better than ever. However, the earliest settlers to this country – those driven by their belief in the
mythologies of the Norse pantheon – had their own, beautiful interpretations. 

For example, some considered the lights to be a manifestation of the elemental forces that created the world, while others saw them more literally as the appearance of the rainbow bridge, Bifröst, connecting the realm of the Gods (Asgard) with that of men (Midgard.) 

Looking at the aurora borealis in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Travellers observing the Northern Lights in Iceland

There are even tales that the glimmering nature of the Northern Lights were the reflections of armour worn by slain warriors, now at rest in the halls of Valhalla. 

Some sightings were not quite so dramatic in their interpretation. According to some folklore, some ancient Icelanders considered the Northern Lights to be an ill-omen. According to one story, if they appeared during childbirth, it was claimed – somewhat comically – that the offspring would be born cross-eyed. 

Where can you see the Aurora Borealis in Iceland?

Northern Lights over a mountain in Iceland
Photo: Golli. The Northern Lights above an Icelandic mountain

The Northern Lights can be seen all across Iceland. There is not one particular spot they favour, so regardless of where you are in the country, make sure to keep your eyes skyward.

There is, however, one other thing to bear in mind regarding the best location to spot these colourful ribbons. If possible, avoid all forms of light pollution, as this can often diminish how vividly they appear. Just think that as much is true of seeing stars in the night sky.

This means that venturing into the countryside for a spot of Northern Lights hunting is far more preferable than attempting to seek them out in the city centre. That is not to say that the Northern Lights won’t appear, but chances are, they will be far more intense to the observer when they are not diluted by the glare of street lights or head lamps. 

How to predict where the Northern Lights will appear? 

Auroras above the trees
Photo: Golli. The auroras lighting up the trees!

The best months to see the Northern Lights in Iceland are between September and April. In reality, they are occurring above our heads at all times, but daylight shields them from view for most of the year. 

There can be no exact predicting when the Aurora Borealis will rear its kaleidoscopic head, but specialists are improving year after year. 

Professionals monitor solar wind activity with the aid of satellite technology, which also helps them to determine changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. A part of this process relies on watching out for solar spots and flares, which can be great indicators as to how intense solar winds might be. 

 

They also closely observe geomagnetic storms, caused when a solar wind meets the magnetosphere. Results are ranked as part of the KP index. Otherwise referred to as the geomagnetic activity index. It can provide very real insights into how intense geomagnetic storms are. 

The KP index is broken down into levels 1 – 9. The lower half shows little geomagnetic activity. The upper half the opposite, bringing with it a higher chance of the Northern Lights appearing, even at lower altitudes. 

Your best bet is to keep up to date with the latest Northern Lights forecast. There are a number of websites and mobile application that offer this, as seen below:

Aurora Reykjavik 

Vedur 

Aurora Forecast 

We would recommend downloading Aurora Forecast applications on your phone. It might remind you to check up on them throughout your visit. Forecasts can change quickly, so getting into the habit can only be in your best interests. 

Are there Northern Lights tours in Iceland? 

Northern Lights over an Icelandic church
Photo: Golli. Auroras above a church in Iceland

Why yes indeed, there are many Northern Lights tours available in Iceland – did you truly think otherwise? 

Operators will not only transport you to the most secluded, darkest spots in the country, but will offer you incredibly useful tips on how best to photograph this wonderful occurrence. Some will even offer you photography equipment to rent! 

Some tours will be single activity excursions, meaning hunting them will be your primary task that night. Others come bundled with other activities, such as caving, glacier hiking, or horse riding, adding a further layer of adventure to your Northern Lights experience. 

For those looking to take part in an organised excursion, consider this Northern Lights Small Group Tour with Hot Chocolate and Photos, which offers 4-hours of hunting the auroras in Iceland’s countryside. 

Auroras over a mountain in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Northern Lights above a mountain peak

For those hoping for something a little different, this Reykjavík Northern Lights Cruise offers the opportunity to experience the lights from atop the bobbing ocean waves surrounding the Icelandic capital. 

There can be no guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights on your tour. Operators will often offer you to come back the next night free-of-charge. To mitigate this risk, some tours will choose to bring a telescope, allowing you to appreciate the twinkling stars of the cosmos, regardless of whether the lights appear or not. 

And though it’s painful to say so, a word of warning. Understand that Northern Lights tours are, above all else, a business

Unfortunately, that does imply that some less ethically-motivated operators may exaggerate. Encouraging the likelihood of seeing auroras might secure your booking, after all. Hence why we stress that you check on the forecast yourself before taking a licensed tour. 

In Summary 

Auroras in Iceland
Photo Golli: The Northern Lights appear any time in Winter.

The Northern Lights is truly a bucket-list experience. Seeing them should be considered a priority when travelling to Iceland during winter. 

How you choose to hunt the auroras is up to you. Superjeep, minibus, ocean cruise, or as part of a private group. All methods promise a mystical experience that demonstrates the very best of what Iceland’s nature has to provide. 

So wherever you happen to find yourself in Iceland, make sure to keep your eyes firmly on the night sky. You never know just when the Aurora Borealis will make their forever-welcome appearance. 

Dazzling Northern Lights to Be Visible in Iceland Tonight

Northern Lights over a lake

Clear weather conditions and solar wind are expected to make for bright and powerful northern lights tonight, Mbl.is reports. When space is at its windiest, the northern lights are at their most beautiful, a press release from a science communicator notes.

Clear weather and solar wind

In a press release published today, Sævar Helgi Bragason – educator and science communicator (editor of the Astronomy website) – predicts that clear weather conditions and solar wind will make for dazzling northern lights tonight, Mbl.is reports.

Sævar points those interested to the Icelandic website Auroraforecast, which publishes information regarding space weather, the magnetic field, and cloud cover over Iceland. The website provides all the most important information needed for people hunting for northern lights.

“The Northern Lights are created when fast-moving ionised particles from the Sun, referred to as solar wind, collide with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. When space is at its windiest, the northern lights are at their most beautiful. This fast solar wind that we are experiencing right now can be attributed to a coronal eruption on the sun last March 11,” Sævar Helgi stated in the press release.

Questions concerning a “bright star in the west”

As noted by Mbl.is, Sævar revealed that he had received numerous inquiries from people about that “bright star that shines in the west at sunset.”

“This is Venus, the star of love. It is rising and will be prominent in the evening sky until summer. Jupiter is lower and descends rapidly in the sky until it disappears behind the sun as seen from us during the month.”

Northern Lights to Decrease in 2019

Northern lights activity will lessen from 2019-2021 due to decreasing solar activity, Vísir reports. There will be fewer of the colourful, bright displays which have recently attracted tourists to Iceland.

Northern lights are caused by solar activity, which goes through 11-year cycles. During these solar cycles the sun experiences changes in levels of solar radiation and magnetic activity, and as this activity decreases, so do northern lights.

“Now and in the next few years [the activity] will begin to decrease, slowly but surely. So that 2019 will probably be very quiet, 2020 as well, 2021, and then the activity should increase again after that and should reach a high point in 2026, around that time, and the following years, three or four years, there should be very nice northern lights as well,” stated Sævar Helgi Bragason, editor of Stjörnufræðivefurinn website and Facebook page which aim to promote interest in astronomy.

Sævar Helgi assured that even in periods of low activity, northern lights never disappear completely. “We will, however, get fewer colourful, splendid displays of the kind we would like to show off to tourists and see ourselves,” he stated.

Great displays of northern lights are still expected this winter, before the activity begins to diminish.

“This winter has gotten off to a good start, and seems to be continuing to be quite good. So I’m very optimistic about this winter and also pretty optimistic about next winter, though we may see graceful and beautiful displays a bit less often then,” adds Sævar Helgi.