Understanding the northern lights, what they mean, and more importantly; get tips to increase your chances of seeing them when in Iceland!

The Northern Lights; the stunning beams of light that dance across the arctic winter skies. There’s been many nights we have stood in awe, freezing, but still not able take our eyes from the sky, ignoring the wish to be snug under our blankets in bed, maybe even with a warm cup of chocolate. Ever wondered what these magical lights actually are? And do the Northern Lights mean more than just pretty lights that reduce the dull of the long, dark winter nights?

Lets first get into what the Northern Lights are. The short (and very complicated) answer:

The Northern lights, or Aurora Borealis, are the results  of electrically charged particles that are sent from the sun as a result of solar winds that interact with oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere, creating (mostly) green and pink light.

Simple, right?

Maybe not. So let’s delve deeper into the mysteries of this winter light show.

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Let’s start with the electrically charged particles. You may have heard that it takes just a few days for solar winds, or in this case tiny electrically charged particles,  to get from the sun to earth. Well sort of. It takes that amount of time for it to get from the sun’s surface to earth. The story began long before that. Up to a million years before that in fact.

The super massive nuclear fusion reactor that we happen to call our Sun condensed a few basic elements a million years ago. Managed to smash them together and in the process created a vast amount of by product, mainly energy and fast moving particles.

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These by-products were really excited about their new existence and wanted to share it with the universe. Only problem was that it was at the center of an incredibly dense star. So just like being late for work and trying to get your train in a crowded station the particle started pushing its way out banging into everything it could at lightning speed. Eventually it makes its way to the surface….then with the solar winds and interaction with the suns magnetic field it gets pushed away from the surface, and a few days later it gets to us.

So next time someone tells you it takes only a few days to get to us you can say, “well a million years and a few days actually.”

Then there is our atmosphere. Interesting fact about our atmosphere. If you squeezed all the particles together to the density of concrete it would be 15ft thick all around the world. It’s our forcefield. Our shield from everything the sun and solar system throws at us. Without it life would not exist. The magnetosphere is our protective coating around the atmosphere and focuses on redirecting and absorbing a lot of the cosmic radiation that at worst would kill us, and at best only interfere with our satellites.

So when a particularly strong solar flare or solar wind hits us it could potentially be quite damaging. Luckily the majority of these particles are redirected back out into space and around us. The small remainder that enters our atmosphere create what we call the Northern Lights.

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The northern lights occur around the poles of the earth (yes, North and South Pole) because the magnetosphere is less strong around those areas and absorbs more of the cosmic radiation. They say that on any given night the northern lights will be practically the same as the southern lights in terms of strength, though don’t quote me on that one as I can’t say I’ve experienced it on both sides.

Finally the colours are produced because the electrically charged particles (or by-product) react with mainly oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere. Though there are reportedly many different colours, the majority of light shows are green or pink. The green light is from the reaction with oxygen and nitrogen. The pink is from the reaction with oxygen much higher up in the atmosphere, and is a lot less common.

So next time you are lucky enough to see the Northern Lights try to think about how this glimmer of light is a stark reminder that our little planet is always being bombarded and affected by everything in space. And thanks to our amazing atmosphere we are always protected.

 

Now that you know all about the Northern Lights, keep reading for some tips on how best to see them in Reykjavik, without necessarily going on a tour. 

 

Iceland is incredibly privileged when it comes to Northern Lights. They are visible from September through May and whether you’re in the city or off in the countryside, they always manage to inspire. In the end though, how well you see them comes down to solar activity, cloud cover and a little bit of luck. If you follow some of these tips below you’ll improve your chances of witnessing this amazing spectacle.

WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO SEE THEM?

TIP 1 — WINTER FUN

With the sole purpose of your Iceland trip being Northern Light spotting, visit during winter. During summer our days are bright and long. So long in fact that the sun does not set for days on end in mid-summer. Great for growing crops and wildlife, yet not so great for Northern Lights spotting. They are visible from September through to May with December and January being the darkest months, which gives you the best chance to spot them. This means that most longer day tours from November onwards will give you ample chances to see them while doing other activities.

TIP 2 — CITY LIGHTS

Escape the city and head into the wilderness. Unnatural lights, especially in cities, will dilute or completely obscure even a fairly strong show. Luckily Iceland’s population is fairly contained around the greater Reykjavík area so you won’t need to travel long distances, somtimes only a few minutes by car.

TIP 3 — AURORA STRENGTH

If you are self driving, check the Aurora forecast for strength with it’s scale of 0-9. For zero or one you might as well keep inside in the warmth but a strength as low as two or three can be an incredible sight on clear nights.

Visit the Iceland Meteorological Office website for the aurora forecast here. The map will show the cloud coverage as well as the aurora activity forecast.  If theres is a lot of green on the map then thats cloud, and cloud isn’t your friend in this situation. You need clear skies and the higher the activity rating number the better.

TIP 4 — LOCATION

Location is everything. Avoiding all light and clouds is one thing, but often the brightest and most active parts of the sky are hidden behind mountains, buildings or trees. As ominous as it may feel, safely pulling off the open road and stopping may just be your best chance. Failing that, a perfect option is to find a tour that goes out of the city and includes an overnight stay.

Northern Lights in Iceland

Northern Lights | Hidden Iceland

WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

GRÓTTA LIGHTHOUSE

Possibly the best place in the Reykjavík vicinity and a personal favourite of mine. It’s within city yet very poorly lit, which is perfect. It’s facing the ocean making the experience even more majestic.

ÖSKJUHLÍÐ

The closest place to down-town Reykjavík, well within walking distance. I’m sure you’ve spotted Perlan, the big glass dome on top, yep that’s the one, the area surrounding it can be great for viewing.

HEIÐMÖRK NATURE RESERVE

If you have a car then head out east out of the city to Heiðmörk Nature Reserve. It is a stunning area by the city border, away from any lights giving you prime conditions for Northern Lights viewing.

Good luck!

 

Written by Dagný Björg and Ryan Connolly. Dagny is a twenty-something Reykjavík-dweller, mother, designer and freelance journalist who loves getting lost in nature, coffee and easy Sunday mornings. Ryan is a guide and all round nature nerd.  He's spent the last three years travelling across the globe whilst also studying everything related to glaciers, climate change and Iceland.

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