The northern lights in Iceland offer a spectacular view that has mesmerized people for thousands of years. Solar waves interacting with the particles in our atmosphere are what cause this spectacle. It can be seen all over Iceland, but only when the nights are really dark and there are no clouds in the sky.
Veils of green light dancing over the night sky is an impressive sight. You might have seen photos of it online, but experiencing this calm explosion of light is really something you want to do at least once in your life. Catching the Iceland Northern Lights is one of the top things to do in Iceland, and isn’t hard if you know when to go and where to go. All you need is the information below.
Northern Lights and History
The land of fire and ice isn’t restricted to only existing on the ground. When you look up at the magnificent light display of the Iceland Northern Lights, you’ll see an ice-cold night sky burning with green fire. Luckily, it isn’t real fire, but rather an interaction between cosmic powers and our atmosphere.
The Northern Lights have been marvelled at by humans in the north since we first came here. Now, they are an important part of the Icelandic tourism industry. Since it can be seen all over the Northern Hemisphere, different cultures have had different explanations for what the Northern Lights are. The Norse people had a myriad of explanations, often revolving around the “fact” that the earth is flat, but not really relating to Norse mythology.
Northern Lights tales in Iceland
In some stories, it was the fires that were lit around the ocean surrounding the earth disc that reflected in the heavens. In other stories, glaciers would absorb so much energy that they started to glow. The rest of the stories often involve spirits, mythical animals, or dangerous tribes of people and giants.
It is generally accepted that there was no consensus regarding the Iceland Northern Lights among the Vikings. Some believed the lights were a blessing, whilst others believed that they were incredibly harmful and might kill you.
In modern times, we know a lot about the real Aurora Borealis in Iceland and know that it’s safe to experience. Unfortunately, visitors can’t see the Aurora Borealis in Iceland whenever or wherever they want. The Northern Lights are sensitive to light and location, and after this article, you will be well-equipped to catch the Northern Lights.
What are the Iceland Northern Lights?
Even though we would like to claim them as our own, the Iceland auroras are not as unique and special as we’d like to think. The lights you can see in Iceland can also be seen all over the Northern Hemisphere north of the 60° line. It's also possible to see them in the Southern Hemisphere south of the 60° line.
The lights we see are the result of the interaction of the magnetic poles of the earth and a kind of solar flare. Before we continue, we’d like to point out that even though some things might sound scary, they’re not going to be harmful to you. Unless you happen to be a satellite, of course, way out of orbit and smack-dab in the middle of the solar flare.
From time to time, the sun shoots out a solar wind made of plasma. This plasma then goes through the trouble of traveling millions of kilometers! It ends up crashing into the strong magnetic field on the poles and gives us a show. While most plasma will be deflected by earth’s magnetism, some of the plasma will stay in the ionosphere. This activates the gasses there in the same way it would in a neon sign.
The reason why we see Aurora Borealis in Iceland for, example, is because the magnetic field kind of “dives in” to the earth. It allows the plasma energy to come a little further into the atmosphere. The way the colors move back and forth like a veil is due to the dynamic interaction between the compounds in the ionosphere and the energy in the solar wind.
The Northern Lights Season in Iceland
Now that you know exactly how the Northern Lights in Iceland come to be, it’s time to go from the “how” to the “when”!
Imagine shining a flashlight on a bright summer day. Doesn’t do much, does it? The Iceland Northern Lights work almost in the same way. So if you go there in the summer when the sun is almost constantly shining, you won’t have much luck. The Northern Lights might be there at any time of the day. However, you can only see them on dark nights unless you have expensive and specific instruments to do so.
Best time to see the northern lights in Iceland
Therefore, if you want to see the Iceland Northern Lights, you can go to Iceland any time of the year, but you need to have proper dark nights. This is usually between September and April, even though the powerful Aurora Borealis has been spotted in May and August. Hunting for the Northern Lights is a great thing to do in February since you will get a reasonable number of daylight hours and still get long and dark nights.
Some northerners will swear that the temperature plays a vital role when you can see the lights. This has to do with the fact that the Northern Lights are more frequently seen in the winter when the nights are long and cold, as well as when it isn’t overcast. The clouds act like kind of a lid on the temperature. This means that when people see the real Aurora Borealis in Iceland, it’s likely that there are little or no clouds in the sky, making it very cold as the heat escapes.
Best Place to See Aurora Borealis in Iceland
To be completely honest, you can see the Iceland Northern Lights anywhere on the island – as long as the conditions are right. To up your chances of seeing northern light, you want to use this website and go as close to the North Pole as possible and probably be in Iceland over the winter solstice. That way, you will have the longest and darkest nights possible.
If you rather choose comfort over the north, you can stick to the general rule of chasing the Northern Lights: stay away from light pollution. That means that even though Reykjavík is an amazing place to be, we recommend checking out one of the many farm stays that you can find all around Iceland. In the rural areas of Iceland with some distance to the cities, you won’t have that much light pollution.
Fun fact regarding Reykjavík: Each night in the winter months, one hour after sunset and all the way to midnight, the Imagine Peace Tower is lit. This is an incredibly powerful beam of light that stands for peace, hope, and love in the world. Unfortunately, it greatly reduces the chance of seeing the Northern Lights, noble as it is. This is another reason why Reykjavík might not be the best place for you to chase the Iceland Northern Lights. Instead, you can join a Northern Lights tour that departs from Reykjavik. They'll take you a bit away from the city, that will increase the chances of seeing this spectacle.
The many year-round camping spots in Iceland offer a good opportunity to see the Northern Lights. Camping in the dead of winter isn’t something we recommend, though. But we are no strangers to taking to the extremes for a good experience, and chasing the lights with a campervan is always a good option.
The whale-watching capital of Iceland offers whale tours with the chance of seeing the Iceland Northern Lights. That way, if you are one of the extremely few tours that don’t see a single whale, you will at least have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights! If you really want to see the whales, March in Iceland is a good month to get a little bit of both!
Far from any light pollution, the Westfjords offer great opportunities to see this natural phenomenon. You will be able to either camp at one of the sites or take a night tour from one of the many hotels in the area.
Mountains go hand in hand with many Icelandic phenomena. Kirkjufell is one of the most photogenic places in the country, and the best place to see the Aurora Borealis in Iceland West.
Last but not least comes one of the most important places in Iceland: Thingvellir. Seeing the Northern Lights here will practically teleport you back to the Viking ages, when they held council and made important connections. This is fairly close to Reykjavík too, so you will be at a point where you don’t have to deal with the light pollution, but you can go there and come back easily.
Just remember that many of the roads and routes in Iceland can only be accessed with a 4x4 vehicle. So, before you just rent any car and start hunting down those lights, speak to your rental agency. That will ensure that you are not left stranded along a rough patch of road. If you are part of the visitors who make a road trip out of the experience and prefer using a campervan, you will need a sturdy campervan if you want to get the most out of your experience. Now, let your Northern Lights journey begin!