When is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? What is the best time of night to go aurora hunting? Can you see the Northern Lights in summer in Iceland? Read ahead to learn when to make your trip to the Land of Ice and Fire for the best chance of seeing the aurora borealis.
Iceland’s Northern Lights are one of its major attractions, competing only with other epic natural marvels such as the ice caves, glaciers and volcanoes. The chance to watch the auroras dance in a place of such incredible natural beauty inspires thousands to reach this island’s shores, cameras in hand and bucket lists ready to be checked.
In spite of this, the aurora borealis are fickle; though they are omnipresent in Iceland’s skies, they are only visible under certain conditions, at certain times of the year, and only then with enough solar activity. Knowing when to come to Iceland in hunt of them, therefore, is an essential part of ensuring that you have the best chances of a once-in-a-lifetime viewing.
The Northern Lights of Iceland can only be seen in the winter months. For this incredible display to be witnessed, there needs to strong solar activity, clear skies, and as little light as possible. Considering Iceland only gets between two and four hours of daylight in midwinter, depending on the latitude, this season provides endless opportunities to hunt for one of nature’s greatest marvels.
Northern Lights tours are run between September and April, and within this range, there is not really an optimum time. In November, December and January, the nights are the darkest, allowing you to start seeking the aurora borealis from mid-afternoon and continue until nearly noon the next day if you are so inclined.
Another advantage of coming in midwinter is that it allows you to witness this country under a blanket of snow, and to make the most of Iceland’s other winter phenomena, most notably the crystal blue ice caves, which are found in few other places worldwide.
Throughout these months, however, Iceland endures its worst weather; it is not unheard of for clouds to block the skies - and thus the Northern Lights - for weeks at a time. Furthermore, storms are more common in this season, occasionally leading to the cancellation of tours or the closure of main roads.
Iceland’s weather is milder in autumn and spring (if still very unpredictable), meaning less chance of cloud cover, although note that the window of opportunity for Northern Lights hunting is smaller due to the increased daylight hours.
Many summer tours, however, extend into these months, allowing you to do more when the auroras are not on display. The Þríhnúkagígur Inside the Volcano Tour continues until October and allows you to descend into and explore a vast, unbelievably colourful magma chamber. Whale watching from the whale-watching capital of Europe, Húsavík, meanwhile, begins in March and lasts until November, providing you the chance to marvel over the giants of the deep.
Of course, regardless of which part of the season you arrive during, you will still be able to partake in a wealth of year-round activities throughout the days, such as snorkelling, snowmobiling and glacier hiking, before setting out to explore the Northern Lights each night.
In the weeks surrounding the summer equinox at the end of June, the sun never sets in Iceland; instead, it circles around the sky, touching the southern horizon but never sinking below it. The brightness of this ‘Midnight Sun’ entirely obscures the Northern Lights. Through the end of May, entirety of July and beginning of August, the nights are still too light for the auroras to be seen.
In spite of this, the aurora borealis can still be seen faintly during the short hours of darkness at the very beginning and end of summer. Usually, they will be seen dimly against a dusky sky, often making for a uniquely beautiful display considering how vivid the colours of Iceland’s sunsets can be.
Even so, you have much less chance of seeing the Northern Lights during these times, as they will need to be particularly intense to be visible, and there is a much smaller window of opportunity to seek them. If you wish to see the aurora borealis in Iceland while still enjoying relatively mild weather and the option to partake in most summer activities, then it is recommended to come in September.
The Northern Lights in Iceland can be seen whenever the sky is dark. In December, therefore, they may be visible from three in the afternoon until nine in the morning. However, due to the earth’s rotation, its atmosphere and its magnetosphere in relation to Iceland’s position on the globe, the time when they are most likely to be seen is between 22:00 and midnight.
Thankfully, this is when most Northern Lights tours, be they by boat, super jeep or bus, set out in hunt of them. It also means that when the tours come to their conclusion, not only can you be assured that you have searched throughout the optimal time, but you won’t be out so late that it compromises your plans the next day.
Even so, if renting a car and hunting for the lights independently, either based in Reykjavík or on a winter self drive tour tailored to the auroras and many other winter opportunities, you can search throughout the night for the Northern Lights. Of course, the least optimal times are those around sunrise and sunset, where light pollution significantly dims them.
Note that if you are out well into the early hours hunting for the auroras, it will be noticeably colder so dress accordingly.
Other than waiting for a clear winter’s night, there are several other measures you can take to optimise your chances of enjoying a fantastic display of the aurora borealis in Iceland.
It must be noted, however, that regardless of the measures you take, witnessing this majestic show of nature always requires a certain degree of luck. Some unlucky travellers dead-set on aurora hunting may be shafted with cloud cover or a lack of solar activity every night of their holiday, while some travelling for one night in August might be blessed with a fantastic show without even looking for it.
Even so, hoping you are blessed with the a Northern Lights display without laying any groundwork is probably not the wisest option when there are several easy steps you can take to increase your chances.
First and foremost, you should avoid urban areas when Northern Lights hunting, as all forms of lights have the same dimming effect on the auroras as the sun. You can do this by finding places in Reykjavík away from such light pollution, by taking a boat to Víðey Island or a bus to the Seltjarnarnes Nature Reserve, although you are much more likely to achieve better results by booking a tour or driving yourself out into the dark surrounding landscapes.
If on a guided package or self-drive tour, your route will take out out into the reaches of Iceland’s nature, maximising your chances every night of catching a show.
Another measure you can take is extending the length of your holiday. If travelling to Iceland for just a weekend, you only have two or three windows in which to go aurora hunting; considering the unpredictable weather and fickle nature of the aurora borealis, you are not setting yourself up for success.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, a fortnight-long vacation, particularly if spent in different parts of the country, will greatly increase your chances for a lucky night of perfect conditions.
Travellers could also consider spending much or all of their holiday in north Iceland; the nights here are longer, and the sky usually less cloudy, providing increased opportunity. The north is also less busy than the Reykjavík area in this season, allowing you to avoid the crowds at the most scenic viewing spots, such as the marvellous Lake Mývatn or frozen waterfall of Goðafoss.
Wise hunters of the Northern Lights will also make sure they use modern technology to their advantage. Iceland’s weather website has regularly updated pages revealing the predicted and current cloud cover around the country, allowing you to plan to reach the areas with the clearest skies, and the aurora forecast. This forecast is measured from 0-9, with 3 and above considered promising.
Finally, it is important to be well-prepared and patient. It will take several minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness of Iceland's nights, so stay a while at each spot even if the sky appears clear. The Northern Lights can also begin at any time, so don't rush away if aren't immediately active.
Ensuring you have many layers of warm clothes and perhaps some hot cocoa will allow you to wait for, and marvel over, the auroras for as long as you like. When it comes to Northern Lights hunting, just a little bit of patience can lead to the most incredible rewards, which no doubt you will remember for the rest of your life.
What was your experience with the Northern Lights in Iceland? What time of year did you come, and would you recommend it? Is there anything else you want to know about when to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? Let us know all about your aurora viewing in the comments below!