The northern lights (or aurora borealis), with their beautiful swirling colour rays, are a spectacular phenomenon. No wonder they feature on many a traveller‘s bucket list. Want to know more about them and how to increase your chances of seeing them? Read on.
What are the northern lights?
The northern lights are caused by solar wind - electrically charged particles that the sun sends across the solar system. The particles interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, causing energy in the form of visible light, usually (but not always) green in colour.
When can you see the northern lights in Iceland?
If you have always wanted to see the northern lights then now is a great time to do so, as experts are predicting continued strong aurora displays this winter (2014-15). The reason being that we are right now at the top of a particularly strong 11-year solar cycle resulting in the most spectacular northern lights over Iceland in 50 years!
In Iceland, the northern lights are visible from the end of August to the middle of April. The weather is, however, the number one factor and as the weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable it is hard to say which month is best. Generally, during the autumn and spring months, the cooperation of the Earth's magnetic field and the Sun's activity are favourable. Statistically, October and March are the best months and between 21:00 and 02:00 the best hours to search for the aurora. The moon also plays a role; a full moon may intervene the illumination from the northern lights although it may be a nice additional subject for northern lights photography.
Where is it best to see the aurora borealis?
Iceland is a great place to see the northern lights. Not only because of its latitude but also because in the case they don't show up, there are so many other exciting winter activities to fall back on, like going on a glacier tour or bathing in natural hot springs! In fact, as the aurora can be unpredictable, we recommend thinking about them as an added bonus to your winter holiday.
The best location in Iceland for viewing the northern lights is undoubtedly deep in the countryside, far away from light pollution. Generally, the farther north you go, the better. Luckily, we have plenty of accommodation options for you to choose from, which are optimally located for northern lights viewing. Some even offer special northern lights wake-up calls!
How to increase your chances of seeing the northern lights
It‘s important to know that the northern lights are a natural phenomenon and sightings can never be guaranteed. Chances of viewing them depend on favourable conditions – dark, clear night skies give the best chances. It is therefore a good idea to stay for a number of consecutive nights in a countryside location to optimise your chances of seeing them.
It‘s also a good idea to check the the Icelandic Met Office‘s northern lights forecast prior to or during your trip. On this site you can see how strong the northern lights are likely to be in different parts of Iceland a few days in advance.
The meaning of the northern lights in Norse mythology
Scientific explanations aside, in Norse mythology, northern lights were believed to be the reflections of the shields of the Valkyries racing across the sky on their way to their resting place, Valhalla. In Icelandic mythology, the aurora meant different things, both good and bad. It was said that if the northern lights are colourful and dance a lot in the sky, a storm is coming. If they stand still, all is well. If they appear late in wintertime then snow can be expected. In the old days the northern lights were furthermore supposed to ease the pain of childbirth; on the other hand pregnant women looking at the aurora would give birth to cross-eyed children! Red northern lights were considered an omen of bad news.
Want to check the northern lights off your bucket list?
View our selection of northern lights tours which include accommodation, guided excursions and fun activities, view our countryside accommodation selection or contact us to create a bespoke winter adventure!
Partial information source: Aurora Reykjavik