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Iceland Northern Lights (Aurora Hunting Guide)

Travelers who seek out unique experiences likely want to journey somewhere during wintertime to set their eyes on the elusive Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights). After all, to most witnessing them can be a once in a lifetime experience!  But then a million and one questions enter your brain. Am I right?! Well don’t fret, we have all the need to know details on Iceland Northern Lights so come along with us…

What is the Aurora Borealis?

Firstly, the Aurora Borealis are a natural phenomenon, caused by energized solar wind particles that are entering Earth’s upper atmosphere and releasing a bright light when they do so. Secondly, this takes place in the geomagnetic field at high latitudes, so both near the Arctic and the Antarctic. Thirdly, you’ll be able to see the Southern Lights, or the Aurora Australis from New Zealand or Tasmania. Fourth, the Northern Lights on the other hand are visible from the following countries:

But did you know, Iceland is in the perfect geographical location to see them? As they can be seen from any part of the country, woohoo!

Meanwhile, the lights themselves move across the sky, in a spiral motion or as a flicker, and can vary a lot in size, shape and color depending on its intensity. Most common color is the white and green one, but they can also have some pink or purple. Further, their movement can be swift or gliding and is often described as dancing.

The name Aurora comes from the Roman goddess of dawn. Similarly, Borealis is related to Boreas, the ancient god of the North wind and Australis is related to Auster, the god of the South wind.

Experiencing the Iceland Northern Lights:

Likely you’re wondering what is it like experiencing the Iceland Northern Lights?  To illustrate, you’re standing on the snow capped ground, a spectacular partially frozen waterfall or gorgeous mountain is listening in front of you… A bright starry night and flickering green and maybe even pink lights are furiously dancing in the sky above.

The Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, are unsurprisingly on the top of many people’s bucket list. They are famed as one of the most spectacular natural wonders that you can witness, crossing the skies of the Northern hemisphere.  You might wonder what time of year can you see them?

Myths About Aurora Borealis in Iceland

Let’s debunk some myths and misconceptions. Those who have never seen the lights, or never visited Iceland, may think that the auroras can only be seen at certain times of the night. Or that they are not as strong as they appear on photos. Another common misconception is that they are more likely to occur during especially cold days.

However, the truth is that the auroras can take place at any hour of the day, it just needs to be dark, or at least dusk, as well as clear skies in order to see them. And the auroras do not come in one form- if you only witness a faint display of them, that doesn’t mean there never is a strong and colorful display of them, you were just not that lucky.

For example, if the sky is completely clear of clouds, then it’s more likely that you’ll get a good view of the auroras, and if there are no clouds, it often tends to be a colder day than if it’s cloudy (which is why people sometimes think that a cold day equals a good Northern Lights display).

When Can You See the Northern Lights?

Iceland’s daylight hours are also constantly changing. The shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, is the 21st of December. On the other hand the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, is the 21st of June. In between these two dates the days (or nights) are either getting longer or shorter by a minute or two each day, with the equinox taking place around the 21st of March and 21st of October.

In summer that means that you will get 24 hour daylight. Even though the sun does set for a couple of hours it doesn’t get fully dark from roughly the end of April until the end of August – meaning there’s some darkness in Iceland from late August until late April, and therefore a chance to see the Northern Lights at this time.

However, in late August and late April you only have about a 2 hour window to catch them, whereas between November and February you have about a 15 hour window each day. And in October and March you have about 12 hours of darkness daily.

Additionally, when planning your Iceland Northern Lights exploration you also might take other factors into consideration, such as weather conditions and if you want longer daylight hours in order to take in some of the many sightseeing locations in the daytime. December and January are the darkest months of the year, but also the coldest and most prone to blizzards which may result in closed roads.

On the other hand, you might see the whole country covered with snow, enjoy the holiday decorations and have a good chance of seeing the colorful aurora dancing above. October-November and February-March have a better balance between daylight hours and nighttime, and the weather might be more favorable. April and September are less likely to see the lights with less dark hours in the day, but the temperatures should be more agreeable and you either get to experience spring or fall in Iceland.

How Frequent are Northern Lights?

Next, it’s hard to pin down how frequent the Iceland Northern Lights are seen.  For example, they can take place 24 hours a day, 7 days of the week – but that doesn’t mean you’ll see them. Also, they might be visible in one part of the country but not another one due to cloud cover.

Sometimes they are very faint, resembling a slow moving cloud and at other times they fill up the sky with bright lights. Active displays normally last for about 15-30 minutes and may fade away before returning an hour later. Sometimes they last for 2-3 hours at a time. They may also only appear for 1 or 2 minutes before disappearing, or reappearing with more, or less, activity.

Things to Keep in Mind While Aurora Hunting

Additionally, the main reason they are often referred to as the illusive Aurora is…. Because they can be sporadic and totally a natural phenomenon.  For instance, it all depends on geomagnetic storms. The most likely time to see great aurora displays is during a solar maximum, which happens once every 11 years.

Further, there is a solar maximum happening between 2023 and 2026, predicted to be at its highest in 2025. For example you can compare the frequency of the auroras to another natural phenomenon that takes place throughout the year, like rainfall. Rainfall can be anything from a light mist or drizzle to a complete downpour. Sometimes it won’t rain for days, but at other times it will go on for weeks on end. However, it’s almost impossible to tell far in advance, and the Northern Lights forecast will only be for 2-3 nights ahead of time.

Iceland Northern Lights Predictors

Our daily Northern Lights forecast gives you the predicted cloud cover over the country to try to go to a place where there’s no cloud cover for a higher chance of seeing them. The strength of the Northern Lights is measured on a scale from 0-9 of a Kp index, which measures the geomagnetic activity in the Earth’s magnetic field.

The highest numbers of the scale are hardly ever reached. If it’s a prediction of 5 then you can expect a magnificent show of the aurora borealis. If it’s only predicted a 2, you still may see some decent auroras on a clear and dark night.

Where Can You See the Auroras in Iceland?

Finally, you might be wondering where is the best place to be looking for the Iceland Northern Lights. As previously mentioned they are visible from anywhere in Iceland, including from Reykjavík, although light pollution from the city (or the full moon!) may get in the way.

The Northern Lights might only appear for a moment, just a few seconds, or they can last for hours on end. The strength can also vary. The pictures you may have seen are likely taken on a very active night, as they are the most picturesque.

If you would like to capture the auroras on film, it’s wise to find some beautiful attraction to have in the foreground. You could also try to capture the reflection of the auroras in water, such as by the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón on Iceland’s south coast. The south coast as a whole has wide open spaces and is smack full of attractions, and a fairly accessible ring road throughout winter, so it’s a good place to head for a Northern Lights adventure.

How to photograph Northern Lights in Iceland?

Modern phones have such good cameras now that if there is a strong display of the auroras you’re able to take some pretty decent photos just with your phone. Although a proper camera and a tripod will obviously give you a better result. Professional photographers will use a camera with a wide-angle lens that allows them to incorporate some of Iceland’s gorgeous landscape in the image as well.

But it’s also important to have a large aperture, letting in as much light as possible. Using slow shutter speed also means that the camera needs to be steady, so a tripod comes in handy. Lastly, it’s cold outside in Iceland’s wintertime, so your batteries may drain quickly, meaning it’s a good idea to take spare batteries along (and warm clothes!)

But if you don’t want to worry about the hassle of photographing the auroras yourself, but still want a great photo to take back as memorabilia, then you can book an Aurora Tour with our Ice Pic Journeys team! After all, then you’ll have your very own private guide looking for the best location, and then photographing you with the Northern Lights above!

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