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.
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.
What are the Northern Lights?
The Auroras – the Northern/Southern Lights or the Polar Lights – are a spectacular natural occurrence which appears in the dark sky near the Earth’s poles around the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. This surreal phenomenon can light up the night sky and take on breathtaking shapes and colors to the awe and wonder of those who are lucky enough to witness it. The Aurora Borealis is the main reason why many visit Iceland.
Experiencing the Aurora
For those who see it for the very first time, the Northern Lights is definitely a memorable experience. It does not resemble any other phenomena on Earth. Regardless of if we are looking at it from a spiritual, artistic, mythical, or scientific point of view, the Aurora amazes us anyhow. It can easily be the main highlight of your trip to Iceland.
As for the sight, it can be smooth and slow, a diffuse glow which gives the sky a greenish hue. At other times, it is a stripe or a serpent stretching across the sky, barely moving. And there are times when it is strong and moves rapidly, dancing and changing its shape very quickly. As the occurrence is different every time, the experience is never the same either. But one thing is for sure, it will not leave you untouched!
The Mythical Explanation
Since the Northern Lights are such a magical looking phenomenon, it should come as no surprise that a wealth of stories and legends exist about where this odd phenomenon came from and what it represents.
The word Aurora Borealis comes from the name of the ancient Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek name for the north wind. The existence of this expression implies that there was some incredibly strong solar activity at that time because observations so far south are extremely rare. According to the ancient Greeks, Aurora was a goddess, the sister of Helios and Selene, the sun and the moon. Sometimes, she would ride across the sky in her glorious chariot to alert her siblings to the dawn.
A Chinese myth goes that the lights appeared during ethereal battles between good and evil dragons who blew fire across the sky. Some Indian tributes thought the lights to be spirits of the dead trying to communicate with the friends and families they had left behind. According to Finnish folk legends, an arctic fox caused the curious phenomena as it ran across a snowfield so fast that its tail threw the glowing snow up into the air.
The Viking legends say that the ethereal lights are reflections from the shields of the Valkyrie, the female helping spirits of the god Odin. The Valkyrie choose the fallen. They would ride across the sky before battles, deciding who would win and who would lose. The dead warriors ride to Valhalla using the light reflecting from the armor of the Valkyrie as the bridge to the heavens.
Throughout the centuries, people have created many different stories and explanations for the origins of the lights above until a scientific explanation was finally discovered around the end of the 19th century.
The Physical Explanation
The first person to accurately explain the Aurora Borealis was a Norwegian scientist named Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917). He organized expeditions to high latitude regions and researched the atmospheric electric currents that explained the nature of the Aurora Borealis. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times.
According to the scientific explanation, Aurora is the dazzling end result of a series of events that begin at the Sun. The lights are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles coming from the Sun as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
On the surface of the Sun, the superheated gas molecules are highly explosive. Charged electrons and protons escape the Sun’s gravity from time to time. During these solar eruptions or solar flares, hot plasma is blown into space which then travels towards the Earth. This is called solar wind.
When these particles reach our planet, they collide with the Earth’s magnetic field which deflects the majority of them. Due to the irregular shape of the magnetic field, however, some particles manage to get through the shield in the areas where it is weaker, such as around the magnetic poles.
After entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the particles interact with the gas atoms, causing the emission of energy and light. This is what we perceive as a colorful light show in the night sky. Some researchers claim that the reaction also comes with a certain noise but this can only be detected by sensitive microphones.
Auroras are not a phenomenon that is unique to Earth. Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, and Saturn all experience auroras as well.
An Explanation of the Different Movements and Shapes
The shape of the lights can vary from a diffuse glow to stripes, arcs, or curves while the intensity of its movement varies a lot as well. The lights are guided by the shape of the Earth’s magnetic field which itself changes constantly. An auroral display is usually made up of many different forms throughout the night.
The most common form for the lights is an arc which is a long graceful curve from horizon to horizon and does not move fast, if it moves at all. This shape is usually seen during periods of low solar activity. When it gets more intense, the shape becomes distorted. When there is more than one curve, we call it a band. Arcs can change into bands in mere minutes.
In periods of higher solar activity, we can see rays and curtains as well as the majestic Corona Aurora, which is a corona of rays radiating from one central location overhead.
When the lights do not take on a specific shape with any special features, this is what we call a diffuse aurora. It is a faint hue similar to sunset and is most likely to be detected by cameras with long exposures, not often by the naked human eye.
The Colors of the Auroras
The color of the lights depends on the molecules in Earth’s atmosphere where the collision takes place. As you have probably noticed, the most common Aurora color is green, sometimes with a hint of white or pink. This color is caused by the high concentration of oxygen atoms at lower altitudes, about 96 kilometers (60 miles) above the surface of the Earth.
Red is rarer and is also is caused by oxygen molecules, but much higher up in the atmosphere, at about 320 kilometers (200 miles). Our eyes are more sensitive to green than to red, therefore, we perceive green auroras more often and reds only during periods of very high solar activity.
Blue occurs when nitrogen is present in the collision. This only happens during the highest levels of solar activity. White, yellow, and pink auroras are created when the rest of the colors are mixed.
How Can We See the Northern Lights?
Being in Iceland does not give you a guarantee that you will see the lights. They are not visible all year round and even in winter, they do not necessarily appear every day. To be able to see the lights, you will need to take a few factors into consideration. Some of these are out of anyone’s control, but there are some things you can do to maximize your chances.
Optimal Conditions for Aurora Watching
The Northern Lights Season
The polar lights appear near the Poles. In these areas, the winters are very dark while the summers are completely bright. The closer we get to the poles, the more the days and nights disappear and there is half a year of darkness and half a year of brightness instead.
Iceland is close enough to the North Pole to have a few months of midnight sun during which the sky is too bright for the Northern Lights to appear. They are still there but the sky is lit up by the sun so we cannot detect the Aurora Borealis in Iceland.
In winter, however, there are a few weeks of almost complete darkness. There is also a seven-month-long period from September to March when we have both dark nights and bright daylight which allows us the chance to enjoy the Auroras at night. Therefore, only those who come to Iceland between late August and early April will have a chance to see the Aurora.
The Solar Activity
The Earth is constantly immersed in solar wind but it has to reach a certain strength to cause the emission of lights in the sky. Solar activity is something we cannot really predict and we have no control over. Sometimes we have active Northern Lights appearing many days in a row but sometimes they do not appear for days. It is just a matter of luck. The longer you stay, the more chances you will have.
The Weather Conditions
The weather in Iceland is another thing that no one can control. The Northern Lights are only visible when the sky is clear or when there are at least clear parts of it. The collisions take place many kilometers above the clouds, so a layer of clouds can act like a curtain. If the curtain is closed, you will not be able to see what is happening behind it.
If the sky is cloudy over Reykjavík, it is worthwhile to check out the cloud forecast and see if there are clear parts further from the capital. This is what Northern Lights tour operators do: when they see an opening in the clouds not too far away, they will drive there. You can also maximize your chances for good weather by staying longer in Iceland!
The Light Conditions
The good news is that the light conditions are something we can change easily by getting out of the light polluted areas. To enjoy the lights in the sky, we need a place that is removed from the city lights. This helps us to perceive the lights better as the strong street or city lights make our eyes less sensitive. But spending a few minutes in complete darkness will change the sensitivity of our eyes instantly. It is possible to see the Aurora from the middle of a city as well, but the same show would be much more intense if seen from a darker place.
The Optimal Location
The best location to see the Northern Lights is a flat area with no buildings or high mountains blocking the view and no street lights around. This could be anywhere from a large park or a hilltop outside of the city to somewhere in the remote countryside.
Northern Lights Watching Spots in Reykjavík
Grótta Lighthouse is possibly one the best places in Reykjavík to view Northern Lights from. Despite being a lighthouse, the area is poorly lit and has limited light pollution. Facing the ocean, the lighthouse offers terrific views and is a great place to either watch the lights dance overhead or to simply watch the stars.
Reynisvatn, a small lake found at the edge of the city, is another great option for Northern Lights hunters. Despite being so close to Reykjavík, the light pollution is kept to a minimum, making it an ideal location to keep an eye out for the Aurora Borealis.
Harpa Conference Hall is the closest place to go to escape from the street lights if you are downtown and suddenly see the lights. There is a long coastal area near the building from which there is an open view of the sea. If the lights appear in that direction, this spot offers the best view available within walking distance from downtown.
Perlan, or “the Pearl,” is a glass dome that hosts a museum, which sits on a hilltop and provides an outstanding view of Reykjavík. As it is surrounded by a small forest, called Ösjkuhlíð Park, the woods protect this location from the city lights.
Reykjavík’s City Parks – There are several parks in Reykjavik that offer great spots thanks to their lower light pollution: Hljómskálagarður, Klambratún, Laugardalur, and Elliðaárdalur. The first two are closer to the city center while the others require a 10 to 15-minute drive to access.
The Aurora in the Icelandic Countryside
You will find plenty of open, flat areas along the coasts, such as on Iceland’s South Coast, on the Snæfellsnes and Reykjanes Peninsulas, and in North Iceland. The Westfjords and Eastfjords can be also nice, but there you will find more mountains and less open flat areas.
The countryside is full of small country hotels, cabins, and guest houses perfectly positioned in the middle of nowhere. During our South Coast, North Iceland, and Snæfellsnes Peninsula tours, you will have the perfect opportunity to search for the lights just outside of the hotel without having to walk or drive anywhere.
The Icelandic Highlands is an uninhabited highland plateau which offers what are probably the most remote and the most peaceful views of the Northern Lights in all of Iceland, along with the possibility of watching them while soaking in a hot spring. In winter, however, you cannot drive up into the Highlands by yourself as the roads are closed. It is only possible to get there in specialized vehicles that Icelanders call Superjeeps.
Here are our top locations for seeing the Northern Lights:
- Thingvellir National Park
- Lake Myvatn
Aurora Prediction and Forecast Tools
There are plenty of Northern Lights prediction and Aurora alert mobile apps and websites, all of which probably rely on the same space weather forecast. Scientists closely monitor the Sun’s activity and then are able to predict if a solar storm is coming. It takes about 18 hours for the solar wind to reach our atmosphere.
You can also join a few local Facebook groups where members alarm others whenever they see the lights over Iceland. Also, most hotels and guest houses offer alert services to their guests.
Space Weather and Icelandic Aurora Forecast
This Aurora Forecast page shows the intensity and location of the Aurora, as predicted 24 hours ahead of time, nicely illustrated on a map of the globe. On this map, however, Iceland is just a small spot, but it is nice to see the whole picture.
The Northern Lights Forecast from the Icelandic Met office shows the forecast and the predicted intensity of the lights a few days ahead of time and is particularly focused on Iceland. Most importantly, it also shows the cloud cover over the country which can be very useful when planning where to go to find openings in the clouds for a clear sky and a clear view of the lights.
The green areas on the map are the clouds and the white parts show clear skies. If the whole country is green, you will have no chance of seeing the lights – not even if a huge solar storm hits the skies. But this does not happen very often. Usually, there are at least a few areas with clear skies.
The predicted strength of the Aurora activity is given as a number between zero and nine, with nine being the strongest. If the number is higher than two, it is most likely that the lights will be visible in Iceland. Anything over five counts as a solar storm which are not at all rare, they happen a few times per month.
The reliability of the forecast is not very strong, though. The predictions can change throughout the day. We have seen it changing from nine to zero in only half an hour. At other times, we have still been able to see the lights when the prediction was at zero.
Aurora Alert Applications
Downloading a Northern Lights alert application could be a good idea. You can set it to alert you and to even wake you up in the middle of the night if a certain intensity is predicted in your vicinity. There are many applications with the same features, just choose the one you like the most. Here are a few examples:
- Northern Lights Alerts for iOS Devices
- My Aurora Forecast
- Space Weather Live Website and App
- Northern Lights Forecast
Aurora Alert Facebook Groups
You can also join some local Facebook groups where the members post notifications of the latest or current sightings and their locations. These groups work nicely when the members are active, so be sure that you post about your sightings and encourage others to do the same!
What is the best way to see the Northern Lights?
The best way to see the Northern Lights is to combine it with something fun. Waiting for the lights to appear in the darkness may be less boring if you are with fun people, listening to legends, stories, and scientific facts about the Auroras. It is even better if you have the opportunity to sit back in a comfortable, heated bus or soak in a hot spring while you pass the time.
You can rent a car and drive yourself to a location or you can take a tour. Driving is only recommended for those who have experience with dark, wintry roads. If you do not want to bother researching the right conditions, checking the forecasts, and researching the cloud cover, you can join a guided tour where an experienced local guide will take you to the right place.
Aurora Tours in Iceland
- Classic Minibus Tour: Magical Auroras – Northern Lights Tour
- Super jeep Tour: Northern Lights Explorer
- For Sea Enthusiasts: Northern Lights Boat Tour
Extend your tour to a whole day nature sightseeing and Northern Lights hunt.
- Golden Circle and Snowmobiling Superjeep Tour
- Golden Circle and Lava Caving
- Golden Circle and Secret Lagoon
- Whale Watching
Maximize your chances by going on a multi-day tour.
- South Coast, Golden Circle, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and Ice Cave
- Snæfellsnes and Golden Circle
- Kerlingarfjöll in the Highlands
- North Iceland Tour
Four or More Days:
Self-Drive Northern Lights Tours
If you are a skilled driver with strong experience driving in winter conditions, you can also head out to find the lights on your own. It is, however, strongly recommended that you do some research before heading out into the dark.
You will need to find a safe parking place where you can exit your car and walk around in the dark. When you begin to see the lights, you might become excited and distracted, so make sure that you are in a safe place where you can enjoy the moment to the fullest.
It is illegal to stop on the side of the road – even if you see others doing it. This is highly dangerous and people have died in accidents caused by Aurora hunters. To find a safe and spacious parking area, you must check out the place in the daylight before heading out in the dark.
You might want to pack headlights so that you can inspect the area in case you decide to walk away from your car a bit. For the best comfort, bring a thermos with some hot liquids and maybe a blanket and some pocket warmers.
Extra Tips for Aurora Hunters
Since you will be standing around doing very little activity while you wait, it is important to choose the right clothing. Here are our ultimate tips for the best Aurora watching outfit!
- A windproof outer layer is a must. Iceland is a windy country and the wind can seriously decrease your thermal comfort if you do not have a windproof shell. (Both a jacket and trousers, too.)
- Your inner layer should be warmly insulated. A duck down jacket or a thick fleece or wool sweater and insulated pants should be fine.
- A comfortable, long-sleeved base layer, shirt, and leggings are recommended. This will add a lot to the insulation.
- A windproof hat (or a good hood on your coat), gloves, and a cozy scarf are also necessary.
- A pair of warm socks (preferably wool) and sturdy, waterproof boots are especially important if you will be standing in the snow.
- Reusable pocket warmers or waist warmers are a great item to have on hand during long waiting periods.
How to Photograph the Lights
Photographing the Aurora is not easy for someone who is not a professional photographer. On certain Northern Lights tours, you will get help from the tour guide to set up your camera correctly and will also get the chance to be photographed with the Northern Lights in the background if you do not have a camera.
If you decide to go on a self-driven Aurora trip, you will need certain skills and equipment to take a photo in the complete darkness required. The following tips will help you to make the most of your pictures.
A tripod: The shots will need an exposure of at least a few seconds, making a tripod a must. Getting the perfect picture of the lights with a handheld camera is impossible.
Manual settings: 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.
A high ISO performance: You camera must go up to 3000-5000 without producing much graininess. In older/cheaper cameras, an ISO of over 400-600 can make your pictures grainy while expensive professional cameras can handle much higher ISO settings.
Manual focus: Camera lenses should also be fitted with a focus indicator as autofocus is not suitable for photographing the Northern Lights.
Long exposures: In the beginning, the shutter speed should be adjusted to four seconds. You might need a shorter time but generally will need around 4-15 seconds. We do not recommend going over 20 seconds as this will create a “star trail” in the sky.
Extra batteries: Cold temperatures and long exposures can cause your batteries to drain very quickly.
Wide-angle lenses: These lenses are recommended for picture taking as they let in as much light as possible while allowing as much of the scene into the frame as possible.
A headlamp: Before trying to take a picture with anyone in it, try to light them up using a headlamp or some other light source. Remember that during a long exposure, they will have to stand completely still so as not to result in a blurry image.
Shutter release: Finally, a remote shutter release or a self-timer function on your camera can be very useful for this kind of picture.
But, remember that there is no camera that can capture the feeling of being in that incredible atmosphere or seeing the lights firsthand. It is just a tool to help you remember the experience of a lifetime!