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 into the science and mythology of Iceland's Northern Lights.
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 colours that dance and swirl across the night sky. These apparitions have only recently been understood by modern science, though 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 travellers 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.
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 its cold.
Many will fail to see them by remaining in Reykjavík, 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 maximise your chances of an aurora experience that you will never forget.
Taking such steps will also protect you from unnecessary disappointment on arrival, and prepares 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 a 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.
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.
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Hermann Burghart (1834-1901)
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 myth, 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, traditions, a means of interpreting, simplifying and understanding the complex nature of mankind’s place in the universe.
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.
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 labour were told not to look at the Northern Lights as they give 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.
The most common colour of the Northern Lights is fluorescent green, followed by pink and purple, then many shades of red, pink, blue, yellow and orange. The colour depends one what kind of particles are ionising in the atmosphere; oxygen creates green and red lights, nitrogen creates pink and blue lights, while neon turns them orange.
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.
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.
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.
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, 100 kilometres 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 Reykjavík.
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, such as around the Grótta Lighthouse.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Northern Lights can be experienced in many ways in Iceland. Though, as mentioned, they can occasionally be seen from Reykjavík, 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.
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 Northern Lights cruises from Reykjavík and Akureyri to witness the marvellous spectacle from the open seas.
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 Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, but will introduce you 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 around the Ring-Road encircling the island, including around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Of course, on this epic journey, you’ll have fourteen nights to seek out the auroras.
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 in seeking out the incredible aurora borealis.
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?