When and where can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland? How often do you see the Northern Lights? What are the Northern Lights? What do the Auroras look like?
When are the Northern Lights visible in Iceland?
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. These beautiful green (and sometimes white, pink and purple!) lights dance around the sky in Iceland quite frequently – but can only be seen in the wintertime. The reason: In order to see them, first of all, it needs to be dark. So even though the Northern Lights occur all year round, you’re unable to see them in the summertime because of the midnight sun.
People flock to Iceland during the winter time in order to see these elusive but beautiful lights and every time I meet someone that learns I'm from Iceland, I get bombarded with questions about them. So here I intend to answer the most common questions about the Northern Lights.
Wintertime is the perfect time to go see them, if you're interested in booking a Northern Lights tour!
What do the Northern Lights look like?
The Northern Lights come in various colours with varying intensity and brightness and in different shapes. The most common colour is the pale green and sometimes pink/red. Occasionally shades of yellow, white, blue and violet can be seen as well.
Here is a great example of the pink and violet amidst the pale (but vivid!) green.
The intensity can be very low, so when you’re craning your neck and squinting your eyes looking up in the sky to try to figure out if you’re looking at Northern Lights or just a cloud with some light pollution in it - then you may be seeing the lights at a very low intensity. (Or a cloud with some light pollution in it - coming from a nearby town, or the moon even). Stick around for a while and see if it changes.
Sometimes if you wait for a few minutes, the lights become stronger and may even do a little dance.
The video above is a trailer for the movie Iceland Aurora, that's dedicated to the gorgeous display of the dancing lights and shot in time lapse photography for over 3 years!
When I say that the lights ‘do a dance’, it’s because they sometimes move across the sky like a ripple of light columns or colourful shooting rays. Other times they appear as patches, scattered clouds, streamers or arcs.
In this picture for example, the lights are similar to faint clouds and you'd be forgiven if you wouldn't recognize them for what they are.
When the lights are at their best, you won’t need to second-guess what it is you’re looking at in the sky. And you’ll understand immediately why people say that they ‘dance across the sky’ as they’ll be constantly moving in a breathtakingly beautiful collision of colour against the star-spread black night sky.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
Besides it having to be dark, you’ll also need a clear sky to see the Northern Lights – or at least a partially clear sky. Otherwise, obviously, the clouds will cover your view, seeing as the lights appear from around 80 km (50 miles) up to 640 km (400 miles) above the earth’s surface – whereas high-level clouds are only about 6 km (20,000 feet) above the earth’s surface.
Here's a stunning example of the clouds partially covering the view of the lights.
The earliest you may catch a glimpse of the lights can be in August and as late as May (when it gets dark for about 2 hours in the nighttime). It’s likelier that you see them when you have longer amounts of darkness, such as in the dead of winter, November to March. The Northern Light ‘season’ is generally referred to as September to April.
What are the Northern Lights?
The aurora lights are connected to the magnetic poles in both the northern and southern hemisphere. They are called Aurora Borealis in the north, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, and Aurora Australis in the south, commonly known as the Southern Lights.
The lights occur when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles.
Here you can read a more detailed description of what the Northern Lights are (and then there's always Wikipedia if you just can't get enough knowledge about them!)
How often do you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
The Northern Lights are a natural phenomena and therefore it’s not possible to accurately say how bright they’ll be on a particular night – or even if they’ll be seen at all. Some weeks you could see them on a daily basis, other weeks you might not catch them at all. I wouldn’t recommend planning a trip to Iceland only to see the Northern Lights (unless you’re coming for a couple of months) because you might not actually see them and would get disappointed. Instead, you should travel to Iceland with another motive, Iceland has so much to offer in nature and culture – and if you happen to catch the Northern Lights while you’re here, then that’s an added bonus.
The lights can be seen from anywhere in the country, including Reykjavík and other towns - but it can be better to see them away from towns, to avoid light pollution.
For the ones that are really keen to see them, you can always go hunting them down on an Aurora Borealis tour with travel companies that specialize in finding the best places each night to spot them. If the sky isn’t clear or the weather is crazy, the tours are cancelled and you get your money back. If the tour goes ahead but you don’t see the lights on the tour, you can go back on the tour for free.
If you prefer, you can rent a car and go hunting them yourself, which is only advisable if you're experienced in driving in snow and winter conditions. The advantage of going on a tour is that the guides are familiar with the roads and their conditions - and many tours are combined with other exciting activities, guaranteeing a good day out, no matter if you see the elusive lights or not.
There is a variety of tours to choose from, for example the most popular and cheapest Northern Lights tour that takes 3 hours by bus, a 2 hour Northern Lights tour by boat, a 4 hour Northern Lights tour by Super Jeep as well as combination of other activities such as caving, mountain camping or even a crab feast dinner! If you really want to splash out, then you could always go for a 2 day activity trip including staying overnight in Þórsmörk, visiting waterfalls, glacier hiking and caving!
Here is a listing of all the Northern Lights tours we have on offer.
Photographing the Northern Lights
What I would recommend for photography enthusiasts, is to bring a great camera in order to catch some breathtaking photos in Iceland. Even go on a photography tour. All the pictures in this article (and most of our articles) are by our photographer Iurie Belegurschi, who is an expert in hunting down these lights and capturing them in such a stunning way.
Here are a few more photos of the Aurora Borealis taken by Iurie.
From my experience, even when the lights are faint, if you have a good camera it will intensify the colours if you use long exposure. So, watching the lights through a lens can be a magical experience - and a picture like this is a great souvenir to take back home!
If you want to read more about the Northern lights check out Katrín's article about the Northern lights in Iceland.