The first time I went on a Northern Lights, aka Aurora Borealis, hunt we found nothing, in fact it took me three visits to Iceland before we spotted them. One night, at home in the apartment, Ingimar had popped into the bedroom and was pulling down the blind. He hadn't turned on the light so spotted the Aurora and called me from the bedroom. He covered my eyes and took me out onto the balcony. Stretching across the entire sky was a bright green line in the sky, between the stars and shining so magically. It's hard to describe what they're like to see. They don't seem real, almost like something from a Disney movie but when you see them really dancing and changing colour then that's when the real magic comes!!
If you've never seen them before, try to imagine the sky with a huge green rainbow stretching from horizon to horizon. It's like something out of the Polar Express movie, but real. I am lucky enough to have seen them quite a few times now. Last November the forecast was to be very high and so the city organised to turn off all the lights and asked homes to join in. This reduced light pollution in the city so the Aurora could be seen much more clearly. Often the Aurora can look like an odd cloud, a long greenish cloud but if you drive outside the city, away from artificial lights, then you really see it glow.
You have to be careful though as the Northern Lights can be a little distracting. We hear of tourists driving the south coast and driving off-road accidentally as they looked up to see the Aurora Borealis. I can totally understand how this happens as I often saw them whilst driving to or from roller derby practice but please, pull aside and safely watch them. They are amazing but not worth risking your life for!!
So, armed with loads of pictures and video clips to remember them by, I am going to share some tips and trick on how to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.
What Are The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)?
The Northern Lights in Iceland, sometimes referred to as Aurora Borealis, is a magical display of light in the sky which can only be seen in wintertime (September - April, when it's dark). It's scientific and a little technical but basically they are caused by the sun. The sun is a huge ball of hydrogen and other gases which fuses away in space. The sun has storms called solar storms.
Imagine the sun as a huge ball of plasma. All the plasma swirling around within the sun makes a huge magnetic field that's under a lot of pressure. Sometimes the lines of force within these magnetic fields meet and leave the suns surface as hot gases and charged particles, and enter the earths atmosphere (solar flare). Once these flares reach Earth (solar winds) they can be extremely dangerous but our planet produces a magnetic field to help protect us (earths magnetosphere).
Earths magnetic field has two weak spots, the North and South Poles, which means a small amount of the suns charged particles can reach Earths atmosphere. These solar winds collide with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms of Earth atmosphere, this enhances their energy. The atoms release this new found energy in the form of particles of light (photons) and this light is known as the Aurora or Northern Lights.
The colours of light you see depend on the different types of gas particles being released and colliding with the charged particles entering earth’s hemisphere, i.e. Oxygen = green, Nitrogen = blue, red. Here in Iceland we mostly see a green light but it's possible to see blue or purple at the edge of the green. Last September was an amazing display where we saw a hint of pink, purple and red - it was as magical as it sounds.
The Japanese believe that a child conceived under the dancing rays would be fortunate in life
Vikings believed that the Aurora was a bridge of fire to the sky, forged by the Gods
Scandinavian folklore describes them as the spirits of unmarried women
The Inuit thought they were the souls of the dead
When Is Best To See The Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights season here in Iceland typically runs from the 1st of September, through winter, until around the 15th of April. This is when the local Northern Lights tours run.
The sky has to be dark to see them so coming to Iceland in the summer months will make viewing the Northern Lights impossible. However the winter months bring a lot of wintery weather and with snow and rain, there are clouds. We have a saying here in Iceland “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes” because if it’s snowing in the morning then it might be clear and frosty at night, so no clouds. The weather is a little unpredictable - recently we have had a warm snap with above freezing temperatures when we usually get -5’c. With this warmer weather, sometimes there is a lot of cloud coverage at night but the day is clear.
It's best to wait until around 10pm and, if you are able to stay up until the wee small hours, 1-2am (don't worry, you can request an Aurora Northern Lights wake-up call from your hotel). Personally, I've spotted them the most in November, September and March but I think that’s mostly because I was out and about. It sounds weird and we kind of take them for grated now but I often don’t even look up at the sky to check if they're there unless someones visiting us.
Are The northern lights guaranteed?
The simple answer is NO.
To see the Northern Lights you need 3 things:
Darkness - you won’t see them in the long, light summer nights
Clear Skies - if there’s a lot of cloud coverage, you won’t see the lights
Aurora Activity - they simply aren’t always dancing
A good mix of the above three things, plus a little luck, and you will have a very memorable night viewing the Northern Lights. Always check the Official Aurora Forecast before you head out Aurora Forecast to see what the next few days looks like. This site rates how likely and how intense the lights will be Europe Aurora Forecast. There’s a fun video on this page SpaceWeather Enthusiast if you scroll near the bottom, it shows the Aurora Forecast and you can see the time the lights will be over Iceland. For a longer forecast you can check 27 Day Flux Forecast which gives a 27 day outlook.
Where To Best See Them In Iceland?
The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis can be seen typically within the Arctic Circle. The South Pole also has a show of lights called the Aurora Australis. But for this post, let's focus on Iceland and Aurora Borealis.
You don’t need to go far out the city to be in with a chance to see the dancing Aurora. If the sky is clear of clouds then head down to Grotto and wait patiently. If you have a car, drive out of the city and away from the light pollution to areas like Grotta, Mosfellsbaer, Seltjarnarnes, Perlan, where you can easily park.
Further a field, head to:
Thingvellir National Park
What Are The Advantages Of Booking An aurora Tour?
The main advantage is that your tour guide knows the forecast and has access to much more information than we do so if they go out, there's a good chance of spotting the Northern Lights. This means that if the forecast isn't looking good by 6pm, they send out a message and your tour is cancelled for the night and you'll have another chance the following night (at no extra cost). This will happen every night until you seem them. They provide the transport and know the roads so can take you to the right spots. Some tours also include entrance to the Aurora Reykjavik Museum in the old harbour. The museum has loads of information about the mythology and science, photographs, a time-lapse video shown on widescreen of the Northern Lights from all over Iceland.
What Should I Wear?
It’s no fun standing around, freezing your butt off. So wrap up warm and wear some good hiking or snow boots. You might be heading out of the city and away from shelter. It is Iceland and it is cold, the wind here is real!! So wrap up ready for it and be patient. Remember the layer rule:
Base layer + Top layer + Outer layer = happy camper
And for those photographers out there, consider your poor wee fingers before exposing them to the freezing cold. Keep an eye on the weather in Iceland. It's also a good idea to bring your camera (obviously), a tripod for those long exposure shots, hand warmers, and a flask of yummy hot chocolate!!
How Does The Northern Lights Forecast Work?
It's a little misleading as the green as the same colour as the lights in the sky but on this map:
Green = Cloud
White = Clear sky
Head for the white areas, away from light pollution. The rule is, if you can see the stars then you have a good chance for the Northern Lights. Here's a video I made explaining how it works:
How Do You Photograph The Northern Lights?
Of course the best souvenir are your own photographs and what trip to Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis wouldn’t be complete without a picture to prove it. This is a hard one though, and takes patience but don’t worry, you don’t need to be a photographer to capture the Aurora. Your smartphone might not cut it. But it will be helpful if you download the Aurora Forecast & Alerts app.
DSLR You don’t need expensive equipment to capture your shot of the Northern Lights, if you have an DSLR camera then great. Set the camera to manual and play around with your ISO, aperture and exposure settings.
Tripod Though not essential, it is a good idea to use something to keep your camera still as you will be taking long exposure shots to capture the lights. Long exposure: 20 seconds
Aperture In your manual settings, go to aperture and set it as wide as your lens allows, i.e. f2/8, f1/4. This will allow the max amount of light to hit the camera sensor in the fastest time, allowing a lot of light in quickly. This means your ISO can be set lower to avoid a ‘noisey’ image (less grain).
ISO This is the level of sensitivity your camera has to the available light. In your manual settings, go to ISO and set it between 400 and 1000. A high ISO can give a grainy image. Try this out and play around with the settings until you’re happy. Mid range ISO: 800 (depends on light pollution).
The other amazing thing about photography is that your camera will pick up more than your naked eye can. Try looking at the sky and then look through the camera, you will see the lights stronger and brighter through the camera lens. If you aren’t lucky enough to see the Northern Lights then here is a video I made of the Aurora Borealis dancing last year.
How Can I Avoid Disappointment?
I get so many questions from people saying they have dreamt of seeing the Northern Lights their entire life, how can they see them. Well, the truth is that the Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon and so you just can’t predict them when planning a trip to Iceland. The best time to plan your trip is obviously in the winter months as the Northern Lights season runs from 1st September, through winter, until 15th April, typically but don't be too disappointed if you don't see them. It took me three visits here before I saw them. The best thing to do is plan your holiday in Iceland, see all the beautiful of this country from waterfalls and glaciers to lava and moss. Then, if you get to see the Aurora dancing in the sky it’ll be the icing on the frozen cake.