If you're planning a trip to Iceland, there are certain things you absolutely have to include on your travel itinerary. Doing exciting glacier hikes, driving the Golden Circle and visiting majestic waterfalls are definitely at the top of the list. And so are the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. So, when can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland? And what's the ideal season or best month to see Northern Lights in Iceland?
If you'd like to know more about this spectacular natural phenomenon, you've come to the right place. We've gathered lots of useful information to help you discover and enjoy this dazzling wonder in the nighttime sky. As part of our Ultimate Guide to the Northern Lights in Iceland, we've covered all of the essential things to know. From Iceland Northern Lights season to doing an Iceland northern lights tour, it's all here. So let's jump right in and learn all about the multicolored spectacle that lights up the night.
What causes Iceland’s Northern Lights?
The first time you see the Northern Lights, you will no doubt be filled with awe and wonder. You'll probably think to yourself, “How on Earth did that happen?”. Well, to be entirely fair, it started well beyond Earth. Those brilliant shades of turquoise, amethyst, and magenta dancing across the sky have made quite the journey. It all comes back to solar activity, and more specifically, solar flares.
As we all learned in science class, the sun is one big ball of gas. Occasionally, there are bursts of energy that come off of its surface. These emissions, known as solar flares, send energy, heat, and supercharged particles out into the universe. Some make their way to Earth and interact with the gases in our atmosphere. As a result, the combination produces photons, which are tiny, fleeting packets of light.
You can witness this combustion of solar particles closer to the poles (rather than everywhere on the planet) thanks to the Earth's magnetic field. If you're lucky, Iceland’s Northern Lights might even greet you as you get off the plane Keflavik International Airport. The color depends on the type of particles and elements interacting, so nitrogen and oxygen each produce different hues. The intensity also changes according to the strength of solar storms and how quickly the particles accelerate.
Best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland
Now that you're an Aurora Borealis expert, let's discuss the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. I've got a little bit of bad news for you here. Unfortunately, the auroras are not visible all year long in Iceland. Northern Lights season starts mid-to-late September and lasts through March or so. This is due to our Nordic island’s far northerly latitude.
Iceland Northern Lights season occurs in the fall and winter because that's when we have enough darkness to see the auroras. They could very well be active in the summer or spring, but due to the late sunsets and the light of the Midnight Sun, they're not visible.
So if you're hoping to spot the undulating waves of changing colors, you'll need to plan your trip to Iceland for the right time of year. You'll be coming when the weather and temperatures are colder, so be sure to pack well. High-quality layers and wool will be your best friends. You want to be able to enjoy the view rather than shivering inside your Iceland car rental. After all, the Northern Lights are just not as much fun with chattering teeth.
Ideal Conditions For Viewing Iceland’s Aurora Borealis
Once you've decided on the right time of year for your trip, it's time to make the magic happen. You want to make sure you give yourself the best chance possible to catch a glimpse of Iceland’s Northern Lights. This means getting as far away as possible from civilization to make sure that light pollution doesn't obscure your views. Clear skies are also extremely important for being able to see the heavens all lit up. The less cloud cover, the better.
If you're traveling in Iceland in the winter, you'll already be checking the weather forecast regularly. While you're at it take a look at the map to see how overcast the skies will be. Luckily, the cold nights of the winter months tend to make the skies much clearer. This will make your experience of the Northern Lights in Iceland all the better.
Best place to see Northern Lights in Iceland
As we mentioned previously, light pollution plays a big factor in how strongly the Aurora Borealis appears. If it’s drowned out by competing brightness, even the most vibrant auroras will fade in comparison. Therefore, the best place to see Northern Lights in Iceland is anywhere without a lot of streetlamps or light coming from homes. Think remote stretches of road or campgrounds in the countryside. It's even better if you can combine it with another Iceland highlight like the Blue Lagoon or Kirkjufell mountain.
Locations like Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon near Vatnajökull National Park serve double duty. As Mother Nature presents her light show up above, it's reflected down below on the beautiful floating glaciers and the water of the lagoon.
Myvatn in the north is known as the Northern Lights capital of Iceland. It's far enough away from any major towns or cities. This means that there's no interference from street lights or ambient lights to obstruct your views of the auroras. If you're exploring the Diamond Circle route and happened to stop by the Lake Myvatn Nature Baths, this is the perfect way to combine two quintessential Icelandic experiences.
And while there are some Reykjavik Northern Lights, I highly recommend getting out of the city in order to have the best experience.
How to go on a Northern Lights hunt
When you visit Iceland, you've essentially got two options for seeing the breathtaking auroras. You can either do a guided tour or hunt for the Northern Lights on your own. While there are plenty of tour operators and Northern Lights tours, I personally prefer renting a car and going on a DIY aurora hunt.
You can rent an SUV, standard car, full-size car, or any vehicle that suits your needs. And you don't have to worry about driving on F-roads because they are closed in the winter. Whichever vehicle you choose, just make sure you're comfortable driving it in icy or snowy road conditions. This may be different than what you're used to, and of course, safety and comfort are everyone's top priority.
And if you prefer to take a Northern Lights tour in Iceland, there are plenty of companies that provide this service. They usually pick you up from a central location and take you on an excursion that lasts for a few hours. You'll be traveling with other tourists and following a set schedule, so you won't have as much freedom and flexibility. Depending on how you want to do the Northern Lights in Iceland, one choice is probably better to suit your needs than the other.
Northern Lights forecast Iceland
If you have decided to look for the Aurora Borealis in Iceland on your own, you've got a secret weapon. The Iceland Meteorological Office website not only has predictions for weather, but also the aurora forecast. Aurora activity is rated on a scale from 0 to 9 so you'll know what to expect. Of course, if there's little-to-no solar activity then the auroras will not be very strong. Some nights they don't appear at all.
The green and white map also shows the amount of cloud cover, so you can head for parts of the country that have less obstructed skies. And of course, the longer you stay in Iceland, the better chance you'll have of seeing the auroras at night.
Photograph the Northern Lights
One of the best things about the Aurora Borealis in Iceland is being able to capture it on film. As with most things in travel photography, pictures and videos aren't always able to do it justice. Nevertheless, it's still nice to have some memories of your once-in-a-lifetime trip.
In order to get the best results, you're going to set your camera to manual and have a relatively high ISO setting. Starting with 1600 is a good suggestion. You want to let in lots of light, so you're lens should have a wide aperture; try F-stop 2.8 or so. Finally, you want a slow shutter speed like 20 or 25 seconds to really take everything in. And of course, use a tripod to minimize shakiness and eliminate jittery photos.
The Northern Lights in Iceland: The Ultimate Guide
Now you know all there is to know about the Iceland Northern Lights. Armed with your knowledge of when to go and what to do, you're unstoppable. Whether you're part of a guided tour or doing an aurora hunt on your own, you're sure to make memories that will last a lifetime. This is sure to be an item on your bucket list that you'll enjoy crossing off. Just remember to bundle up and bring something warm to drink!