The Aurora Borealis takes its name from Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek name for the north wind. On clear, crisp winter nights in Iceland, you can experience the Northern Lights dancing magically across the sky. Seeing this magnificent light show with various colours dancing and twirling before your eyes is nothing short of amazing and each display is totally unique. Some say it’s a life-changing event. The Northern Lights are one of the biggest draws to visiting Iceland in the winter, the downside being that they are a natural phenomenon and thus elusive and unpredictable. Iceland is your winter wonderland where you can experience snow covered waterfalls at every corner, sunrises and sunsets that reflect pink and orange across the sky and pitch-black lava fields covered with a blanket of snow. Seeing the Northern Lights would be the cherry on top on top of your winter trip, a bonus to an otherwise amazing adventure with quirky experiences.
The best time of the year
Darkness is required. Iceland is located at a high latitude, meaning there is no darkness from mid-April until mid-August. In this period of time, no Northern Lights can be observed. The Northern Lights season is from late August to mid-April. However, from late September to late March, it is dark after 6 pm, and one enjoys maximum chances. On a yearly basis, the Lights are at their peak in September and March. The reasons for this trend are due to the March and September equinox.
As a naturally occurring phenomenon, the appearance of the Northern Lights is notoriously difficult to predict any further in advance than about two hours before it happens. So much is dependent on solar activity and, whilst we can estimate the number of sunspots that might occur on the sun, we can accurately predict neither when they will occur nor how frequently.
The best time of day
First and foremost, to see the Northern Lights, the skies must be dark. This immediately rules out daylight hours and, contrary to popular opinion, it is not pitch black in the Aurora Zone for the entire winter. Indeed, despite the sun not appearing above the horizon, even the shortest day, 21 December, brings three to four hours of grey/blue light which renders the Northern Lights invisible to the naked eye.
Once darkness falls, the Aurora can be visible at any time of day, but the optimum time seems to be around 9.30pm to 1am and that is when we concentrate the majority of our searches.
In the longer term, auroral displays are correlated with an 11-year cycle in sunspot activity and other perturbations of the sun; the more restless the sun, the more aurorae. 2006-7 corresponded to a minimum in solar activity, and the next maximum in solar activity will be around 2013, with frequent Northern Lights displays likely for another two or three years after that.
In addition to these more or less regular variations in frequency of the aurora, there are also less predictable, erratic displays resulting from solar storms. Some of these, particularly near solar-activity maximum, can lead to visible Northern Lights remarkably far south, if you're in an area with clear, transparent night skies. The "Alerts" section below will help you stay on top of solar activity and prepare for some viewing when a solar storm does occur.
If you want to know more about this topic, we recommend you take a look at our article about How, Where and When to See the Northern Lights in Iceland.