Peek at the Northern Lights forecasts before you book your tour to increase your chances of seeing these world-famous dancing lights. The solar activity map and the cloud forecast give up-to-the-minute hints on the locations of the aurora tonight.
In the past, we gave credit to gods and magical creatures for creating the fabled Northern Lights. Now that science has revealed that optimal aurora conditions depend more on solar wind and reactions between energy particles from the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field, experts can predict where and when the lights will appear–to some degree.
Arctic Adventures guides keep track of weather, solar flares, and cloud cover to make the Northern Lights tours worthwhile and eventful for the sightseers.
What are the Northern Lights?
The colorful Aurora Borealis appear when the solar wind blows the Sun’s charged particles into the Earth’s atmosphere through the weak spots, i.e. the magnetic poles. There, protons and electrons interact with gas atoms and effuse energy and light. The playful colors of the Northern Lights depend on the type of gas particles involved.
What is Solar Wind?
Solar winds are streams of charged particles that come from the Sun. The Earth’s magnetic field attracts these electrons that then gather around the magnetic poles. When energy particles collide with the gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, a glow lights up the night sky.
The result is the shining Aurora Borealis in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Aurora Australis in the Southern Hemisphere.
When the turbulent solar winds are particularly strong, this can cause a major outbreak of the Northern Lights.
Real-Time Aurora Forecast For The Northern Hemisphere
NOAA’s OVATION Map
NOAA’s Current Aurora Forecast for the Northern Hemisphere
NOAA’s Oval Variation, Assessment, Tracking, Intensity, and Online Nowcasting (OVATION) Map can also help you to observe the activity of the aurora in real time. It shows 30 minutes aurora forecast for Northern and Southern hemispheres.
The map is updated daily around midnight (UTC).
It’s a good sign if you see thick areas of light yellow, orange or red on the OVATION Map. Light green color indicates a lower chance of auroral activity, while the spots in yellow, orange and red mean that chances of seeing the Northern Lights are very high.
Icelandic Met Office
Even though there are plenty of tools to track Aurora activity, one of the most reliable sources is the Icelandic Meteorological Office.
On this website, you can see the forecast that gauges the Geomagnetic Activity level (Kp index).
Watch the scale on the right side of the page that ranges from 0 to 9, where 0 indicates that there’s very little geomagnetic activity, and 9 indicates an extreme geomagnetic storm.
The higher the activity index (Kp number), the more chances you have to witness the mesmerizing aurora borealis. Usually, it’s rare that the scale ranges higher than 8, so be sure to catch the sight of the dancing lights even at low Kp-index numbers.
Together with the cloud cover forecast, this map helps to detect the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.
What is the Kp Index?
The Kp number is a system to measure aurora’s strength. The Kp index was introduced by a German scientist Julius Bartels in 1939. The “Kennziffer Planetarische,” which translates loosely as “planetary index number,” measures the solar activity.
Take a look at this scale to size up your chances of seeing the Northern Lights:
0-2: Low, almost no activity. Even with such forecast, it’s still worth heading out if the sky is clear. Don’t give up!
2-3: Moderate activity, but there are good chances to catch a glimpse of the Aurora. This is the most common forecast. Hit the road!
4-6: A big solar storm is on the way, look forward to electrifying Northern Lights show!
7-9: Very uncommon, the sky will be on fire, and even the city’s light pollution won’t stop it!
Cloud Cover Forecast for Iceland
The cloud forecast is crucial for Aurora watchers as the Northern Lights shine at their best when the sky is dark and partly clear. This map helps to indicate the areas that are less clouded.
The map of Iceland above retrieved from the Icelandic Met Office displays the current cloud cover forecast. White color marks areas with a clear sky, whereas the areas in green are cloudy. Even if the area is in light green, your hunt can still be successful, if the Aurora is active. Another option is to search for the gap in the clouds.
Note that the time zone on the map is set to UTC/GMT+0, according to local time in Iceland.
The forecast is updated around 6 p.m. (Icelandic time) daily so it’s best to keep a close eye on it before heading out on your hunt.
How Accurate are the Aurora Forecasts?
Be aware that the auroral forecast doesn’t give absolute certainty as to where and when the Northern Lights might appear, as natural phenomena are entirely out of our control.
However, here are some factors for you to consider that can increase your chances of viewing:
- Because of the increased daylight hours, auroral activity is most active between late August and early April.
- It’s best to hunt down the Aurora in crisp wintertime when the nights are long and the humidity levels are low, so the sky is unclouded most of the time. In Iceland, this brisk winter starts around the end of October and carries on into mid-April.
- Make note of the night hours in Iceland:
December has the longest periods of nighttime, around 19-20 hours. The shortest day of the year, winter solstice is only around 4 hours and this means 20 hours of darkness.
In January and November, the night is roughly around 11-12 hours.
In February and October, the night is around 9 hours.
Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, Iceland summertime is blessed with the near-Midnight Sun–however, this means that the aurora is rarely seen in the months of May, June or July. You have a much better chance of seeing it if you travel in winter than in summer.
Check the website www.timeanddate.com for accurate sunset and sunrise projections.
- Summer solstice – June 21st, the sun is visible for the full 24 hours in the Westfjords and North Iceland.
- Winter solstice – December 21, the sun rises at 11:21 and then set at 15:30, so Reykjavík barely gets 4 hours of daylight, while the Westfjords get 2 hours and 45 minutes of light.
- While it’s much easier to spot the northern lights in wintertime, during cusp periods like August and April you should head out to the highlands for better visibility.
- Light pollution is the enemy of the Northern Lights! Slip away from the city’s artificial lights and dive into Icelandic wilderness. Usually, the Aurora is not visible during daylight hours. The sky should be pitch-black, so take a nap and prepare for the night’s adventure!
- Altitude is not a big factor. Save yourself the trouble of climbing mountains and opt instead to find a viewpoint with a clear horizon and cloudless atmosphere. The distance to the auroras is from 80 km (50 miles) up to 640 km (400 miles), but sometimes aurora can be seen as high as 350 miles (600 kilometers). This is about the altitude at which the International Space Station flies!
Therefore, unless it is darker or the view is less blocked on the mountain/hill, the height is irrelevant.
- Instead of mountains, look for flat open surfaces or slightly higher viewpoints. Those are ideal because viewers are rewarded with awesome panoramas as your goal is a clear horizon. Look for a spot where there are no high mountains or buildings that block the view.
Jump Aboard our Guided Northern Lights Tour!
Luckily for you, if you don’t want to deal with the trouble of following the forecasts, Arctic Adventures offers loads of guided tours where one of our local experts will make sure you’re in the right place, right time for the Aurora. The tour will save you time, the hassle and expenses of renting a car, and you’ll see and learn much more than you would on your own.
Once you’ve reached your destination, sit back, relax and get ready for the dancing lights!