Northern Lights will leave you speechless – everyone should see them at least once in a life. The Aurora season is at its peak right now, and Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see them. There’s nothing to wait for. Let the hunt begin!
The Northern Lights, in other words Aurora Borealis, are a real Arctic wonder and there is no exaggeration in that. What’s more, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to observe them and definitely our favourite. Every time we have an opportunity to see it, we just can’t take our eyes off this magical spectacle. It’s impossible that you can be bored with this unique, marvellous view. Also, Icelanders confirm that; even those who have already seen it hundred times are still very excited. In fact, each Aurora is special.
What causes Northern Lights?
Now it’s time for a little reminder from geography and physics lessons. So what exactly causes this breathtaking phenomenon? A fundamental reason is the Sun. In short, because of explosions on the surface of the Sun so-called solar wind is emitted, a stream of protons and electrons of very high energy. When the solar wind reaches the electric field of Earth, some particles are dispersed, and the rest is attracted by magnetic poles. The particles get to the ionosphere close to magnetic poles, where they collide with the atoms, and in a result make them glow. At that moment we tilt our heads back and become hypnotised by dancing lights.
Best time to see Northern Lights
Happily those who want to see this fantastic light show have plenty of time. Northern Lights in Iceland start to appear at the end of Augustand can be observed until the end of April. It doesn’t mean that in other months the Sun is not active, nothing of that kind. In the summertime in Iceland it is completely bright at night (by the way this is also an interesting phenomenon – Midnight Sun). As you can see, the Northern Lights season lasts almost eight months. If you don’t like winter, you can visit Iceland in September or October. The chances of seeing the spectacle are the same as in the winter. We have been lucky enough to see amazing Northern Lights even at the end of August, many times.
What is needed to see the aurora?
- high solar activity
- clear sky
- darkness (away from the cities and built-up areas; ideally, if the Moon is in a new moon phase, but it is not a necessary condition)
How to use Aurora forecast?
We usually use the aurora forecast prepared by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. We can recommend you this forecast with a hand on the heart because it has never failed us. If you see this page for the first time, you can feel a little lost, but actually, it is really easy to use.
You can find the most important thing on the right side. On a scale from 0 to 9 expected activity of the aurora is shown. If there is at least 2, it’s a very good sign. The activity above 6 is so rare that it practically doesn’t exist (we’ve never seen anything from 7 to 9). An incredible, very strong aurora can be seen when the scale shows 4 or 5. Even at 3, you can count on a fantastic show. When the scale shows 1 or 2, then you might see the Northern Lights, but they won’t be very strong.
Of course the solar activity is not everything. Unfortunately, when the night is cloudy, don’t expect to see the Northern Lights. So now let’s look at the map, which shows us the clouds cover forecast. You should be interested in the white spots. When solar activity is at the level of 4, and you happen to be in a place that is marked on the map as white, then bingo! It’s almost like to win a lottery – well, don’t worry, the probability is much higher actually. Don’t forget to scroll the slide under the map to the right. Even when the sky is clear at the moment, it doesn’t mean that it will be so in an hour or two. If you see a light green spot, it’s still nothing to lose. Ideal conditions are when we have completely cloudless sky, but some small clouds won’t spoil you the show.
Have a look at our original Icelandic fine art prints!
What time to observe the sky?
The Northern Lights can be seen all night long, but they appear more often before midnight than before dawn. The show usually lasts from around a quarter to an hour or even longer. As the light spectacle disappears, it doesn’t mean that it’s over. Sometimes in an hour or two, you can count on a replay. Most of the time we have seen the Aurora between 10 p.m. and midnight. If you are staying in a hotel (of course the best option is a hotel located somewhere in the middle of nowhere, that’s because of lack of light pollution), then you can ask the staff to wake you up if the aurora appears. It’s not an unusual request. No one at the reception will be surprised; many tourists do it.
Usually Aurora starts very delicately with barely visible greenish or whitish glow. It is a sign that soon the spectacle will begin. Often after a few minutes, the Northern Lights begin to move like crazy in the sky. ‘Crazy’ is a very good word for this fascinating, flickering show. Frequently Aurora moves across the sky very quickly, it swirls and almost dances.
The Northern Lights are dancing above our tent just before midnight. It was crazy cold that night, but when only we noticed this miracle in the sky, we didn’t hesitate to leave our comfy and warm sleeping bags. You just have to experience it! Westfjords, September 2016.
Northern Lights hunting – how to dress, what to bring?
If you wonder what to wear in Iceland while searching for the Northern Lights, we’ve got just one piece of advice – dress warmly, very warmly. Even if it’s still September, you should remember that at night you can easily freeze to the bone. Sometimes you can wait for a long time until the Aurora appears, and it can dance in the sky for an hour or so. You’d better wear a lot of layers of clothing. Remember about a windproof jacket, gloves, scarf and cap. A torch or headlamp is very useful. And don’t forget about a thermos with hot tea, it will sweeten even the longest waiting time for the light show.
Best place to see Northern Lights
To find the best place to see the Northern Lights, you just have to go out of town (or any other built-up area). Just go somewhere, where there is no glow of lights – such places in Iceland are almost everywhere. Wherever you are, apart from Reykjavik, it usually takes just 5 minutes of driving to get into a perfect spot for observing the Aurora. If you want to capture the magical moment, when the Aurora appears in the sky, find some majestic fjord or other charming place.
You can enjoy this amazing phenomenon also in the centre of Reykjavík, but of course, the Northern Lights away from the city appear to be a lot stronger. And don’t count on great pictures in the city, the light pollution will spoil everything.
‘Northern Lights Tour’, to go or not to go?
In Iceland there are many tour operators, which offer ‘Northern Lights Tours’. Plenty of tourists think that these tour operators have some secret weapon to outwit the bad conditions and they know the places where the Aurora always appears. Well, none of these things. No one can be 100% sure as it comes to the Aurora activity. Whether you will see it or not is mostly a matter of luck. We usually like to organise everything on our own, but we have to admit that if someone comes to Iceland just for a weekend or a few days and is not planning to rent a car, it is a great and basically the only solution. Apart from that, local guides can safely navigate you to fantastic places, where there is no light pollution and Aurora looks its best. We don’t have to tell you that finding your way in the middle of the night in a foreign country is not the easiest task.
Don’t forget to check out the the second part of our guide, where you can find lots of tips about photographing Northern Lights. Whether you are just a typical snapshot shooter or a passionate photographer, we got you covered – our guide will teach you how to photograph Northern Lights, step by step. Capturing the Aurora is not so easy. Especially those who are just starting to be passionate about photography struggle a lot, but even more advanced photographers often have some problems with that. Happy hunting!
A tiny Icelandic church and Her Majesty – Aurora. What a show! Westfjords, September 2016.
Have you seen the Aurora yet? How was it? In our case, it surpassed our expectations – million times!