If you’re visiting Iceland, watching nature’s spectacular light show, the Aurora Borealis – or Northern Lights – is surely at the top of your bucket list! Geographically, Iceland is an island situated 65 ºN on the fringes of the Arctic Circle, and is one of the best places in the world to watch the Northern Lights. The chances of seeing this natural phenomenon is greater in Iceland than in many other northern lying countries; this is because of its geographical position and also because Iceland has a small population, resulting in lower light pollution. On a clear night, when the lights of the Aurora Borealis are strong and vibrant, you can even see them in Rekyavik!
What Causes the Northern Lights?
The science behind this natural phenomenon lies in particles that have been electrically charged by the sun. As they enter the earth’s magnetosphere they become agitated by the ‘solar wind’ which funnels the particles down to the earth’s two magnetic poles – the North and South Poles. Aurora Borealis means ‘northern dawn’ and Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights) means ‘southern dawn’ – both are named after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn.
The particles create a large horse-shoe shape that fills the sky. The different colors are made by the different gases found in the particles. The most common colors are yellowish-green and pink, but blue, violet, and even red can be observed. The dancing shapes of light created by the particles appear as clouds, streams, and spirals.
When is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?
If you’re wondering how to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, the recommended time to visit is September–March, when the nights are longest. However, visitors are lucky as sightings are for the most part possible year-round! Most nights, a light yellowish-green aurora is visible. But of course in the summer, when there is little darkness, these are hard to distinguish. The best nights for a dramatic show is when the sky is really dark and there is no moon – immediately before the ascent of the New Moon is optimal. If you’re planning to visit Iceland during one of the equinoxes, you’ll be in for a treat. During these two periods in the year the Northern Lights are most vibrant. The lights are particularly colorful and frequent every 11 years – the next year will be in 2024!
Where is the Best Place to See the Northern Lights?
For the best possible chance of seeing the lights, travel a short distance out of Reykjavik to a place where there is no light pollution. Favorite locations include Thingvellir National Park and the Blue Lagoon. For those who enjoy being close to the sea, the Snaefellsnes peninsula is also a favorite spot. The Jökulsárión glacial lagoon is ideal for photographers, due to the dramatic contrast between the colored night sky and stark whiteness of the icebergs in the lagoon. Skógafoss is another iconic place to photograph the Northern Lights. This mighty waterfall lies close to the little town of Skógar. The waterfall is south facing, so some fantastic photographs can be taken of the lights in the night sky, and their reflection in the river.
Needless to say, there are some tall buildings in Reykjavik that offer good viewing points, including the top of Hallgrímskirkja and Perlan. The Grotta Lighthouse, just outside town, is another popular location. For the ultimate viewing experience, you can always opt to relax in a hot tub in a rural location or one of the hot spring lagoons!
What’s the Forecast?
If you would like a reliable prediction to help you determine the Northern Lights forecast, the Solar Ham website is regularly used by keen enthusiasts. The Aurora Forecast on the website gives a three day geomagnetic forecast that is highly accurate. The forecast includes information on the likelihood of you seeing the lights in your location, presented on an easy-to-use indicator.
The opportunity of seeing the Aurora Borealis is certainly not to be missed. In the past, there were many legends associated with them, including that they were the spirits of animals or humans – or the reflection of burning fires. In medieval times, many people did not want to see the lights in the night sky, as they were thought to be the harbingers of famine or war. But these days, the Northern Lights are celebrated and a source of national pride, so be sure to experience them for yourself!