FAQ About the Northern Lights in Iceland | Science & Mythology

Geverifieerde expert

Just what exactly are the Northern Lights and how do they come to form?

What are the most commonly asked questions about the northern lights, one of Iceland's most alluring and elusive attractions? What is the science and folklore behind the existence of the aurora borealis? Read on for more information about the science and mythology of Iceland's northern lights.

The Northern Lights | Iceland's Cosmic Treasure       

The aurora borealis over Gullfoss Waterfall.

If there’s one surefire way of putting life into perspective, it’s to look upon the northern lights.

This spectacular solar phenomenon is truly one of nature's greatest wonders, creating ethereal lights in a range of colors that dance and swirl across the night sky. These apparitions have only recently been understood by modern science, though they have long been of inherent fascination to those who have seen them. Incredible myths and tales inspired by them are woven into the cultural fabric of many societies, and Iceland is no exception.

As such, witnessing the aurora borealis tops the bucket list of many travelers to Iceland. Inspired by incredible photographs and footage and encouraged by travel bloggers who regard the northern lights as a 'must-see,' thousands flock to this country for their chance to enjoy one of nature's most impressive phenomena.

The Northern Lights most commonly appear as luminescent green ribbon.

Even so, however, many guests come to Iceland with illusions about northern lights hunting that often are not true. Every summer, some arrive shocked to find that the sun never sets in this season, thus the auroras are not visible. During a warm winter night, some will not set out under the misconception that the northern lights only appear when it's cold.

Many will fail to see them by remaining in Reykjavik, where light pollution often makes them invisible.

Before arriving in Iceland for a northern lights holiday, it is clearly important to be aware of when to come, what sort of tours to book, and how to maximize your chances of an aurora experience that you will never forget.

Taking such steps will also protect you from unnecessary disappointment on arrival and prepare you for possibilities such as the aurora not showing on your first northern lights hunt or the display only being short and faint. After all, the northern lights are a natural occurrence that depends on conditions far out of anyone's control.

Furthermore, a greater understanding of this phenomenon will only add to your experience. While any sighting of the northern lights is touching and magical, having background knowledge of the historical, cultural, and scientific role that this wonder has had across the world will make your celestial experience that much more special. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Northern Lights

Auroras dance over the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.

Are the Aurora Borealis and the Northern Lights Different?

The northern lights and aurora borealis refer to the same amazing natural wonder; the latter term is simply the scientific name. The word Aurora is Latin for sunrise and the name of the Roman Goddess of the dawn, and Borealis is the Greek name for the north wind. 

Of course, they are called the 'Northern' Lights as they only occur in the Northern Hemisphere, usually (but not exclusively) above a latitude of 60 degrees. Iceland sits largely between the latitudes of 64 and 66 degrees north. The Southern Lights are similar phenomena and are called the aurora australis.

What is the Role of the Northern Lights in Mythology?

Thingvellir National Park is a popular place to see the Northern Lights.

Long before the dawn of modern science, the world’s ancient people looked to the glittering night sky with big, existential questions. Without an understanding of even basic astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, optics, or geography, their understanding of and relationship with the universe was skewered, resembling nothing as to what is regarded as rationally legitimate today.

And yet, from this misunderstanding came a patchwork of fantastic myths spread across a great range of cultures, all linked to what was collectively shared; the movement of the stars. From these myths came ratified value systems, and traditions, a means of interpreting, simplifying, and understanding the complex nature of mankind’s place in the universe. 

A geothermal field in north Iceland under the aurora borealis in winter.

Wherever they occurred, the northern lights played a starring role in these beliefs. The Chinese, though rarely privy to the aurora borealis, considered the lights a battle of good and evil between two great dragons. Some Inuits of North America interpreted them as a ball game played between their dead ancestors.

The Scottish, Irish, English, and French all considered the lights an omen of coming strife, whilst alternatively, the Scandinavians associated them with bountiful fishing, painless childbirth, and warmth. 

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, dance in the winter skies of Iceland.

Many Greenlanders, rather morbidly, considered the lights to be the souls of dead children, while the Finnish thought them either the glowing streak of a firefox or the magical spume of water ejected from a whale. The Cree Indians believed them to be a reflection of the life cycle, an image of their ancestors dancing in the heavens; the brighter they were, the happier their ancestors.

Icelanders believed the lights to be about childbirth too. Women in labor were told not to look at the northern lights as they gave birth for fear that the child would be born cross-eyed. However, due to their Scandinavian origins and their original belief in Norse Mythology, Icelanders also saw them as promising omens and held them in high spiritual esteem.

What Colour are the Northern Lights?

The most frequently occurring colour in the Northern Lights is Green.

The most common color of the northern lights is fluorescent green, followed by pink and purple, then many shades of red, pink, blue, yellow, and orange. The color depends on what kind of particles are ionizing in the atmosphere; oxygen creates green and red lights, nitrogen creates pink and blue lights, and neon turns them orange.

What Creates the Northern Lights?

The northern lights are created by solar winds interacting with the Earth's magnetosphere, the sphere that gives Earth its magnetic field and protects us from the brutal forces of space. The magnetosphere ensures that these winds are drawn to the poles, where particles 'precipitate' like rain in the upper atmosphere, causing this phenomenon.

When Do the Northern Lights Occur?

Iceland's Northern Lights can only be seen in the dark winter months.The northern lights occur throughout the year; however, the light of the sun is far too overwhelming for them to be seen during the day. Considering Iceland has the midnight sun throughout much of June and July, and May and August are notably bright, the best time to see the auroras here is between September and April. Tours are only conducted in these months.

Does it Have to Be Cold to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?

One of the most commonly asked questions northern lights guides receive is 'how cold does it have to be to see the northern lights?' Temperature has absolutely no effect on whether or not the aurora make an appearance, they just require the darkness of the winter months to be seen.

In fact, you will find that the warmer it is, the more comfortable your northern lights experience; as such, many tour operators provide hot cocoa on a cold night. During the months of April and September, you will often be able to enjoy an incredible display of the auroras in temperatures bordering on balmy. 

Where Can I See Northern Lights in Iceland?

The Northern Lights can be found anywhere in Iceland, but only when the sky is dark and clear.

You can see the northern lights anywhere in Iceland so long as the sky is dark and, as importantly, clear of clouds. This is because the auroras occur in the thermosphere layer of our atmosphere, 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, which is far higher than any cloud.

Of course, however, there are places around the island that are more likely to allow you to enjoy a magnificent show. Firstly, anywhere rural is better than anywhere urban; street and residential light pollution will significantly reduce your chances of seeing the northern lights, particularly in Reykjavik.

Even if you can see the auroras from your hotel window or a beer garden, they will appear much more dramatically if you can get somewhere darker. If you wish to see the lights without leaving the city, then it is recommended to go to one of the capital's less residential areas.

Anywhere in nature presents an equal opportunity to see the lights whenever it is dark, but of course, the further north you travel, the longer the nights. The South of Iceland is dark for 20 hours a day in midwinter, while the North is dark for about 22. The Northeast of Iceland, it should be noted, also experiences the least cloud cover out of any region on average.

Can I See the Northern Lights in Reykjavik?

Straumur is a popular northern lights area just outside HafnarfjorudurIf you're staying in a hotel in Reykjavik, it is possible to find decent locations nearby for seeing the northern lights when activity is strong. They will, however, be more faint than if observed from more remote and dark locations due to the city’s light pollution.

Open areas like parks or the coast, such as around the Grotta nature reserve, can provide darker settings for viewing. For the best experience, consider heading to the outskirts of Reykjavik, where darker skies offer a more vivid and unobstructed display.

For an alternative northern lights experience in Reykjavik, you can visit the Perlan Museum to see the mesmerizing Northern Lights Show. Alternatively, to learn more about how the aurora works, you can pair a northern lights tour with a visit to the Aurora Museum.

What's the Best Place to Stay to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?

If you want to see the northern lights from the comfort of your accommodation in Iceland, it's best to stay in more remote places. If you have a rental car, then staying in an Icelandic cottage can be great. You'll be more isolated from light pollution, and you'll enjoy total peace.

There are also many hotels that have very little light pollution. You can find great accommodation along the Golden Circle, for example, or along the South Coast.

If you prefer to stay closer to Reykjavik, look for accommodation in the greater Capital Region, such as a hotel in Hafnarfjordur. This will provide easier access to more dark locations outside the city limits.

When is the Best Time of Night to See Northern Lights in Iceland?

A beautiful display of the auroras over some jagged mountains in Iceland.

Of course, it is clear by now that you have to wait for a winter night to see the northern lights, but there are a few other considerations those dedicated to witnessing the phenomenon can take. The best nights for aurora hunting, for example, are during a new moon; even a full moon can cause too much light pollution if the auroras are faint.

Due to atmospheric conditions, it is often said that the northern lights are usually at their best between 21:00 and 01:00. However, this is not always the case, and you should not discount a chance to see the lights if the opportunity arises outside these times.

Where Else Do the Northern Lights Appear?

Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell in west Iceland, beneath the magical Northern Lights.

The northern lights can easily be seen from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and northern Russia. During geomagnetic storms, the auroras are also visible in lower altitudes, such as in some Baltic states, the British Isles, the rest of the USA, and China. 

Due to its long dark nights, excellent infrastructure, remote nature, and somewhat manageable winter weather, Iceland remains one of the most easily accessible and reliable places to visit to see the aurora borealis.

What is the Best Way to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?

You can see the nprthern lights in Reykjavik in its darkest corners in winter.

The northern lights can be experienced in many ways in Iceland. Though, as mentioned, they can occasionally be seen from Reykjavik, those dedicated to witnessing the best possible display will find much better luck by considering one of the following options.

Firstly, it is more than possible for you to rent a car and drive out into Iceland's nature for your chance of catching a show. Using the cloud cover forecast and aurora forecast on the nation's weather website, you can make the most of modern technology to plan the most promising trip.

If you choose to take this option between October and the beginning of April, it is highly recommended to rent a four-wheel drive due to the ice and snow on the roads, and only then for drivers confident in winter conditions.

The Westfjords are far north, making them great for northern lights hunting.

While driving yourself allows you to search for as long as you like without worrying about other guests, you miss out on the expert knowledge of a local on a guided tour. These northern lights experts know all the best viewing spots can help with camera settings to help you take the perfect photo, and can answer any questions you have about the auroras themselves, the sites you visit, and Icelandic culture.

Most northern lights tours are conducted in buses, although there are super-jeep tours for those who want a smaller group and the chance to get even further into the landscapes. More unconventionally, you can take a northern lights cruise from Reykjavik to witness the marvelous spectacle from the open seas. In the North, you can even combine northern lights with a whale-watching tour from Akureyri.

The northern lights photographed in south Iceland in winter.

The most reliable way to see the northern lights in Iceland, however, is to book a guided package or self-drive in the winter; both of these options will allow you to access remote parts of the country, allowing you to aurora hunt almost every night in incredible landscapes under near complete darkness.

This five-day package, for example, will not only allow you to seek the aurora dancing above incredible sites such as the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, but will introduce you to the ethereal crystal blue ice caves, rare features so beautiful it seems that they were drawn from a fable.

Those seeking the winter adventure of a lifetime, meanwhile, could look at this fifteen-day package, which not only takes to all the sites above but also around the Ring-Road encircling the island, including around the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Of course, on this epic journey, you’ll have fourteen nights to seek out the auroras.

Of course, if you would rather drive yourself, these five-day and fifteen-day self-drives are fantastic options that follow the same itineraries.

The amazing auroras over the glacier lagoon in south Iceland in winter.

By booking a guided package or self-drive, you will have all your accommodation and tours booked in advance, allowing you to truly marvel over the amazing nature of Iceland and focus your energy on seeking out the incredible aurora borealis.

How do I Prepare for a Northern Lights Hunt?

Preparation is key for a successful northern lights hunt. Begin by checking the aurora forecast to determine the likelihood of their occurrence, keeping an eye on solar activity levels and cloud cover. Ensure your transportation is ready, whether it’s a rental car or a guided tour.

If you want good photographs, prepare your camera and ensure it has manual settings. Also, bring a sturdy tripod for stability during long exposures. Charge all batteries, and bring extras due to the cold weather’s draining effect. Familiarize yourself with your camera's settings to quickly adjust in the dark. You may also want to bring a thermos with a warm drink to help keep yourself warm.

What Should I Wear for Hunting the Northern Lights?

It's important to dress very warmly to protect against the Icelandic winter coldWhen you go northern lights hunting in Iceland, you'll be standing outside for long periods of time. Dress warmly and in layers to adapt to the cold night. Insulated, thermal clothing, a windproof and waterproof outer layer, a hat, good gloves, and a scarf are essential to keep warm.

Choose sturdy, waterproof boots for comfort and warmth, and wear wool or thermal socks. The key is to protect yourself from the cold, wind, and moisture while waiting for the lights, ensuring a comfortable and enjoyable experience.

Did you find your questions answered here? Do you have any further questions about the northern lights in Iceland? Have you seen the northern lights in Iceland, and if so, where?

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