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Northern Lights Iceland

Everything You Need to Know About the Aurora Borealis

Flickering curtains of green, red, yellow or blue color dancing on the night sky. Most people that ever had the luck to experience Northern Lights will agree that this show performed by mother nature is simply breathtaking.

View our selection of Northern Lights Tours

Northern Lights are definitely one of the most spectacular light show on earth that is created by nature. They are indeed an elusive, magical phenomenon. When you for the first time see them dancing around the entire sky above you and change shapes and colors within a short time period, you will understand what we talk about.

General Information

Anyone who’s ever had the chance to experience the Northern Lights will agree that Mother Nature’s spectacular light-show is an elusive, magical phenomenon not to be missed.

Conditions have to be perfect for the Aurora Borealis to be seen in its full glory. However, if you’re lucky, you’ll witness flickering curtains of green, red, yellow and blue dancing across the night’s sky.

Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Iceland to watch the Arctic’s famous light show. Usually seen in pitch darkness, the lights are said to be so bright that you can easily read a newspaper underneath them at night-time.

To learn everything you need to know about the Northern Lights and how to experience them at their most majestic, read on:

Northern-lights-Thorsmork-trek-Iceland

 


 


The scientific name for the Northern Lights is Aurora Borealis, which is originally Latin and can be directly translated into ‘the dawn of the north’.

In mythology, Aurora was a Roman goddess of dawn, while Boreas, in Greek mythology, was the Greek god of the north wind.

The term Northern Lights was first coined and used by the Norwegians in the 13th Century. Today both names, Aurora Borealis and Northern Lights, are used to refer to the same magnificent, colorful lights.

Northern Lights in Iceland

Since the Northern Lights are such a magical looking phenomenon, it should come as no surprise that a wealth of stories and legends exist around where they came from and what they represent.

Throughout the ages, people have attributed many different stories and meanings for the lights. In the distant past, the lights were thought to be everything from dancing spirits to light from the gods’ kingdoms, or even a race of evil beings! Archaeological research shows that the Northern Lights were first documented during the Stone Age, with carvings depicting the lights being found in a cave in France.

The Northern Lights continued to puzzle people for thousands of years, until the end of the 19th Century, when an explanation to this great natural mystery was finally discovered.

Based on his many expeditions throughout Norway and beyond, scientist Kristian Birkelund, discovered how the Northern Lights are created. Famously, he also became one of the first people to ever capture the Northern Lights on camera. A short summary explanation of how the Northern Lights are formed can be found below.

Interestingly, the Aurora Borealis aren’t just visible on Earth, but can also be seen on a handful of other planets, including Jupiter. Recently, scientist have discussed whether or not the Northern Lights produce their own sounds, and our human ears simply aren’t tuned in to hear them, but the jury is still out on this hypothesis until more research can be carried out.

Myths about the Northern Lights


In short, the Northern Lights occur as a result of electrons from the sun colliding with different gases in Earth’s atmosphere. This collision causes light to be released, resulting in what we see on Earth.

To go into a bit more scientific detail, the aurora is caused by solar activity and the way it interacts with the magnetic field that surrounds our planet. Oxygen and nitrogen, which are found in the Earth’s atmosphere, also play a role in creating this wonderful multi-colored light show.

Solar particles (electrons and protons), which originate from the sun, travel continuously to Earth and are constantly hitting the Earth’s magnetic field. Due to the magnetic forces at play here, these solar particles are guided along the protective shell of Earth, which results in particles reaching two ring-shaped regions called the Auroral Ovals.

One of the Auroral Ovals is located close to the North Pole, while the other is close to the South Pole (see picture below). The amount of solar activity that occurs dictates the size of those regions. The greater the activity the greater the size of the region.

How do the Northern Lights happen

During cycles of increased solar wind activity, which are referred to as Solar Flares, enlarged particles travel between the sun and Earth and hit our magnetic shield, causing it to change.

The Magnetopause, which normally prevents solar particles from entering Earth’s atmosphere, then “breaks”. As a result of this, a number of charged particles enter the atmosphere at the Auroral Ovals and interact with gases – namely oxygen and nitrogen.

As the charged sun particles calm down, light is produced by the molecules of the gases. If a large enough number of collisions occur, this light is visible as the Aurora Borealis to us. The whole process is shown in the graphic below.

The Aurora is, in fact, a proof that particles do affect the magnetic field of our planet. This is, of course, a very simplified explanation of the whole process, but if you wish to read a more in-depth scientific explanation, we recommended watching this video.


when to see the northern ligths

What is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

The Northern Lights season is from late August to mid-April. The optimal time to observe the lights is from mid-September to late in March. However, while these are the darkest months, they’re also the most unpredictable when it comes to weather, with frequent rain and snow storms, so be sure to plan your sightseeing trip accordingly!

There is very little darkness from mid-April to mid-August due to Iceland’s location at a very high latitude. During this time period, there are no chances of seeing the Northern Lights.

As one of the 7 Wonders of the World, no trip to Iceland would be complete without going to see the Northern Lights, so make sure to stay for at least seven nights to increase your chances of seeing the lights.


Since nature isn’t always predictable, it’s best to check the weather forecasts regularly after you arrive in Iceland. Here you can see the Aurora Borealis forecast for tonight and the next few days, which can be very useful for predicting the appearance of these brilliant but at times elusive lights.

 


Now that you’ve figured out the best time to see the Northern Lights, it is now time to learn where is the best place in Iceland to see them.

Can you see the Northern Lights in Reykjavík?

As mentioned previously, darkness and a minimal amount of light pollution are the main key to seeing the Northern Lights in all their glory. However, it is still possible to see them in the city. Within Reykjavík, there are some secluded areas which are perfect for late-night Northern Lights viewing.

  • Grótta Lighthouse
    Grótta Lighthouse is possibly one the best places in Reykjavík to view Northern Lights. Despite being a lighthouse, the area is poorly lit with limited light population. Facing the ocean, the lighthouse offers terrific views and is a great place to either watch the lights dancer overhead and watch the stars.
  • Öskjuhlíd
    Öskjuhlíd is a woodland area and hill situated near the center of Reykjavík and is well within walking distance for most visitors. The secluded hill is a great viewing point for those who wish to see the Northern Lights.
  • Reynisvatn
    A small, remote lake found just outside the city, Reynisvatn is another great option for Northern Lights hunters. Despite being so close to Reykjavík, light pollution is kept to a minimum, making it an ideal location to watch out for the Aurora Borealis.

What are the best places to see the Northern Lights Outside of Reykjavík?

Visitors looking to enjoy the Northern Lights outside the city have a wealth of options. The further you get away from the city, the better your chances are of seeing the lights.

Here are our top locations for seeing the Northern Lights:


Northern Lights Tours

admiring the auroras in iceland

To make sure you get the best Northern Lights experience, why not book a tour and combine the Aurora Borealis with an adventure activity? Arctic Adventures offers a range of Northern Lights tours to suit any budget or desire.

Tours range from five-day excursions to evening trips, with the Northern Lights Explorer tour being our most popular.


northern lights iceland

Colour Variations of the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights display a variety of different colors, but green is by far the most popular. The types of colors seen depend entirely on the type of gases involved, as well as the energy distribution of the sun’s particles.

Green, yellow and red-colored light is associated with excited oxygen, while a blue and purple light is caused by interactions with nitrogen. The types of colors are also dependent on altitude. Different altitudes emit different energies which can cause differences – the higher the altitude, the greater the energy.

If the particle collision occurs at a relatively high altitude, and solar wind intensity is high, the color will be red. However, if the collision happens on at lower altitudes, and solar wind intensity is low, the light will be green.

The blue and the purple colored Northern Lights are rarely seen because the Northern Lights need to go above the shadow of the Earth and be directly exposed to sunlight. This positioning rarely happens as the sun would need to be positioned below the horizon in a so-called deep twilight.

Purple Northern Lights are referred to as ‘resonance scattering’ and can also occur when the light of the sun is reflected by the moon. Yellow Northern Lights are caused by a combination of the different colors mentioned above.


The Aurora Borealis can appear in many forms, but the basic shapes are: Arcs, Corona, Diffuse, and Drapery.

Drapery is the shape that is seen most often and is commonly described as looking like flickering curtains. Arcs have shapes that remind us of rainbows, while Corona, like the name suggests, is shaped like a crown. Diffuse is rarely seen and doesn’t take on any specific shape. The shape is usually spotted with the help of viewing equipment, rather than the naked eye.

Scientists still don’t know exactly how or why the different shapes are formed, but they believe it has something to do with the electrons’ source and how it arrives into the atmosphere. A person’s standing-position can also affect the shape of the Northern Lights, which makes the lights even more unpredictable, as two people could be looking at the very same Aurora at the same time, but describe very different visuals.  


how to dress for northern lights tour

First thing’s first; when visiting Iceland and the Northern Lights you’ll need to pack warm, water-resistant apparel. To make sure you pack the right weather-appropriate clothing, here’s everything you need to wear while waiting for the Northern Lights.

  • Warm hat
  • Thick pair of gloves
  • Base layers for upper body
  • Insulated skiing jacket
  • Thermal leggings
  • Waterproof softshell trousers
  • Woollen socks
  • Snow boots
  • Waterproof rucksack
  • Thermal flask and food – waiting for the Northern Lights can be hungry work!

Once you’ve packed the necessary clothing and refreshments, it’s time to pack the most important piece of equipment, your camera.!


To capture the perfect Northern Lights photo, it’s essential that your camera has a manual setting and can function in a high ISO setting. Older cameras, generally five years and older, don’t possess a high ISO setting and therefore won’t produce the best-quality image.

Photosensitive lenses are also essential to capturing the best photo, as they take panoramic shots with a large diaphragm. It’s possible to use a tight, close-fitted or close lens, but wide lenses are best for this type of photography.

Camera lenses should also be fitted with a focus indicator, as autofocus isn’t suitable for photographing the Northern Lights as it will automatically filter some of the nuance and subtle details which make it such an incredible sight to begin with.

How to Adjust Camera Settings

How to take photos of Northern Lights

Your camera should be switched to manual mode and the diaphragm adjusted to the largest setting available. The lower the diaphragm number the better – we recommend 1.4, 2.0 or 2.8.

In the beginning, the shutter speed should be adjusted to 4 seconds. You might need a shorter time, but generally you’ll need around 4-15 seconds. We don’t recommend going over 20 seconds as this will create a ‘star trail’ in the sky.

ISO (photosensitive/sensitive), should be adjusted to ISO 800 in the beginning. Most of the time, ISO 800-3200 is used, but lower numbers should produce better quality images and colors. Don’t be afraid to experiment with this number – it all depends on how strong the lights are.

If your camera lens is fitted with an image stabilizer or filter, please remove it as this could affect the quality of your photos. Next, adjust the focus to infinity. If the focus is unstable, zoom out to the max and try to focus on a star and then zoom back in when the focus is clear.

After this, put the camera on a tripod and adjust the white balance to Auto White Balance. The Aurora Borealis change colors quickly and are fast moving so it’s best to adjust this setting.

So, the basics for taking photos are:

  • Mount the camera on a tripod and remove any filters
  • Turn off the no shake function
  • ISO should be adjusted to 800-3200
  • The diaphragm should be as big as the lens provides
  • Shutter speed should be 4-15 seconds
  • White Balance should be adjusted to Auto White Balance
  • Pack extra batteries. The cold depletes a camera’s energy quicker!
  • Bring a flashlight, so you can see what you are doing while adjusting the settings