Where To See The Northern Lights

Where Can We See The Northern lights?

This is understandably one of the most common question people ask when they are looking for information about the Aurora. Naturally it’s important to find out where it’s possible to see the Northern Lights before you start making detailed travel plans.

When Is The Best Time To See The Aurora?

The Northern Lights season starts every year in September and is until mid-April. There isn’t one particular month better than the other, the lights are hard to predict or plan for and the weather can prove challenging. That said, if you have a clear sky and can see the stars then you might be in for a good viewing.

One of the most important factors is the length of your stay as each day increases your chances of seeing the beautiful lights. We usually advise people to stay here for at least 4 days as the lights are often active for 2 – 3 days and then low for 4 – 5 days.

Iceland is an ideal place to hunt for the Northern Lights. In order to get the best viewing, go outside the city and away from the artificial lights. Often you don’t have to go far, just away from the lights as they often hinder you from seeing the Aurora Borealis.

Self-Drive v Guided Tour

Another common question we often get is whether we recommend a self-drive, guided tours from Reykjavík or a combination of both.

The main advantage of booking a tour is that your guide knows the forecast and has access to much more information so there’s a good chance of spotting the Northern Lights. If the forecast isn’t looking good by 6pm, they send a cancelation message and you’ll have another chance the following night. They provide the transport and know the roads so take you to the right spots.

In the winter, roads conditions can be icy and not ideal, so we don’t advise self-driving unless drivers are familiar with snowy and icy roads.

Road more on Driving In Iceland.

It is common for people to opt for both, tours and self-drive. It all depends on what each person is comfortable with. We recommend that you spend a few nights out in the countryside if you stay in Iceland for more than 5 days. You don’t need to go far out the city to be in with a chance to see the dancing Aurora. If the sky is clear of clouds then head down to Grotto and wait patiently.

If you have a car, drive out of the city and away from the light pollution to areas like Grotta, Mosfellsbaer, Seltjarnarnes and Perlan, where you can easily park.

Further afield, head to Thingvellir National Park near the Golden Circle to be surrounded by nature for a vast open sky ready for the nights display. Threngsli, Seljavallalaug Pool, Vík, Eldborgahraun, Djúpavík, Látrabjarg in the Westfjords, Ásbyrgi Canyon, Hvammsfjordur, Jokulsarlon, East fjords, Hvitserkur, Siglufjordur, Reynisvatn, Öskjuhlid, Borgarholt in Kopavogur and Kirkjufell.

Understanding The Northern Lights Forecast

There are a few things you need to consider when you take a look at the forecast. Firstly, look for the white areas on the map, these show clear sky (so a low cloud coverage). Secondly, in the top right corner you will see a scale which shows numbers and indicates to a moderate, active or high performance of the Northern Lights. Finally, the weather in Iceland changes constantly so it’s important to check the forecast regularly during your stay, especially if you are doing a self-drive so see where to drive to.

When you go on a bus or superjeep tour, the drivers know where to hunt for the lights each night. Also keep in mind that even though the forecast says low, go outside and hunt for the lights if the sky is clear, they tend to show up without any notice.

The Northern Lights Forecast

How To Plan A Northern Lights Vacation

How to Plan a Northern Lights Vacation

It’s a common misunderstanding that the northern lights appear every night throughout the year. We have years of experience in giving visitors advice on how to best plan a northern lights vacation, and we would like to share that experience with you.

4 Tips for a Northern Lights Vacation

1. Timing

When you are planning a northern lights holiday, the timing is of course crucial. The northern lights can appear every month of the year but you need darkness in order to see them. For examples, even if the forecast shows active lights in July, you won’t see anything due to the 24 hour daylight. May – August are off season due to daylight.

The northern lights season starts at the beginning of September and ends mid April. In late August, when the days have started to get shorter, late at night you could get lucky and see the lights. The length of your stay is also vital as the lights often appear for 2-3 days and then there can be nothing for some days. We always recommend 4-5 days increase your chances.

2. Plan for Winter

We always recommend visitors to plan their visit to Iceland as a nice winter holiday with loads of tours and activities. Enjoy all the wonderful things the country has to offer. Whether you choose a tour or to self drive, you will have an amazing time in the pure and unspoiled nature, the views and the sites.

The northern lights are a bonus and we recommend you think of them that way. Keep in mind the hours of daylight you will have during your stay. The months with the fewest hours of daylight are December and January but this gives you longer in darkness to hunt for the lights.

3. Check the Forecast

Keep a close eye on the northern lights forecast. You need to look for white or light green patches, area where there is little to no cloud coverage. There is a scale on the top right, the number here should be 3 (moderate) or higher. However, it’s always worth having a look at the sky, especially if it’s clear and you can see the stars. See the stars and you have a good chance if the lights are going to show.

4. Plan Self-Drive Tours

Some people opt to self drive and hunt for the northern lights. Keep in mind that the road conditions in Iceland during winter can be difficult and dangerous, especially out in the countryside; slippery roads, snow and even blizzards.

Alternatively you can opt to take a tour, either a bus tour, super jeep or private tour. A combo tour is a great option to tick a few items off your bucket list.

We recommend the Golden Circle, Secret Lagoon, Bubble Tour.

  • Choose the winter months
  • Stay for 4-5 days
  • Keep a close eye on the Aurora forecast
  • Choose the hunt that suits you best, whether a self drive or tour
  • Plan your holiday around what Iceland has to offer, northern lights are a bonus

What are the Northern Lights?

What are the Northern Lights?

Most of us know that awe-inspiring feeling standing watching a black night sky scattered with stars light up in rainbow colors during a fireworks display, yet this does not compare to Planet Earth’s rendition of magical light called Aurora. These unbelievably stunning displays can ordinarily be seen at the Northern and Southern Poles and are considered one of the natural wonders of the world. Over the Arctic they are called Aurora Borealis and over the Antarctic it is called Aurora Australis.

Contact encounters between gaseous particles in the atmosphere of the Earth and charged particles released from the atmosphere of the Sun result in the display of colors in the sky called the Northern Lights. The varying colors are as a result of specific types of gas particles that are bumping into each other. The scientific name for the Northern Lights are the Aurora Borealis.

The aurora effect starts on the surface of the sun with solar activity, injecting a cloud of gas, scientifically known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). This can take two to three days to reach Earth. When one of these ‘injections’ reaches earth, it collides with the magnetic field. The earth is surrounded by an invisible magnetic field, and were one to actually see what the shape is, the earth would appear as a comet with a magnetized extended ‘tail’ that stretches a million miles trailing behind the earth and in the opposite direction to the sun. As this coronal mass ejection collides with the magnetic field of the Earth, complex changes occur in the magnetic tail area generating currents of charged particles that flow along the lines of magnetic force directly into the Polar Areas. In the upper atmosphere of the Earth the particles are amplified and as they come into contact with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, they generate a radiant aurora panorama.

Knowing the resulting shape of a magnetic field in one of these coronal mass ejections stumps solar physics to this day as it is impossible to predict with any accuracy in which direction the CME field is pointing until the collision occurs, causing either an astonishing magnetic storm and stunning aurora or a fizzle. You may not always be able to see the Northern Lights, however, they are always there displaying their magnificence. Winter is the most favorable time to have a good sighting.

Aurora displays show up in a range of colors with pink and pale green as the most predominant colors. There have been reports of yellow, green, blue, shades of red and violet with the lights appearing in a multitude of forms such as patches, scattered clouds, arcs, shooting rays and pulsating curtains of light.

Although the Northern Lights may look like fire, if you were able to touch them, they would not feel like fire at all. It is true that the temperature in the upper atmosphere can reach thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, this heat is determined by the average speed of the molecules. The density of the air is extremely low at 96 Kilometers up, a thermometer would reveal temperatures way below zero in the location of an aurora display.

Auroras are sometimes difficult for the human eye to pick up however, with the use of a camera and a long-exposure setting plus a clear dark sky it is possible to obtain some remarkable and dazzling photographs. Sometimes an Aurora display can reach as high up as 1000 km although generally are between 80-120 km.

History indicates two people are credited with the naming of the Northern Lights. Pierre Gassendi named the Northern Lights between 1592 and 1655, after the Roman goddess of dawn; Aurora and the north wind; Boreas and Galileo Galilei between 1564 and 1642 with both of them bearing witness to a light display in September 1621. However, one of the oldest mentions of Aurora dates back to 2600 BC in China by the mother, of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, Fu-Pao who observed intense lightning making its way around a star called Su from the constellation of Bei-Dou, lighting up the entire area. Cro Magnon cave paintings have been discovered dating back to 30,000 BC and are considered to be one of the oldest depiction of aurora. A drawing of the Aurora with candles glowing above the clouds was discovered in 1570 AD. Another account of Northern Lights phenomena appears to have been found by the astronomers of King Nebuchadnezzar the second on a Babylonian clay tablet around 568/567 BC.

Aurora Mythology:

The closest space phenomena of the waxing and waning of aurora lights has enthralled humanity since prehistoric times and has resulted in the birth of mythological creatures, folklore as well as influencing religion, history and art.
Diverse cultures have their own explanations for this natural event, the Inuits of Alaska interpreted the lights as the souls of the animals they hunted. Menominee Indians from North America attributed the Aurora radiance belonging to the torches of the giants living in the North. The Europeans of the Middle Ages claimed the appearance of the glowing lights were a message from God. Others believed the lights to be those of opposing armies in heaven and perchance a sign of an imminent catastrophe. A singular appearance of the Aurora Borealis in the skies during the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 convinced the rebel forces to believe that God was on their side.

For some cultures the appearance of the Aurora Borealis had more fearful and sinister connotations. Norse Mythology held the belief that the rays were the reflections of the Valkyries riding across the sky carrying slain warriors to a heroic resting place in Valhalla. The Inuit people held the belief that the Northern Lights were the souls of the dead involved in a disorderly game of primitive football. The Icelanders believed that a pregnant woman must avoid gazing at the Lights to prevent her child being born cross-eyed. The Northern Swedish Lapps feared the supernatural powers of the dazzling lights so either remained indoors chanting or if they were outside, they would cover themselves up to keep out of reach of the rays. The Alaskan Inuit kept their children hidden and even carried sharp knives for protection.

A little more about the Northern Lights

One of the most breathtaking recorded Aurora displays in recent history occurred in 28th August and the 2 September 1859 and is known as the “Great geomagnetic storm.”

There is a verb in the Icelandic language – “braga” – describing the movement of the Northern Lights.

A single medium sized sunspot coming from the plasma clouds would fit approximately 4 to 6 earths.

The Plasma speed collides with the stratosphere between 10.000 and 20.000 km per second.

What Causes The Northern Lights

Great Institute of Physics video on what causes the Northern Lights

Quick summary on what causes the northern lights

What causes the northern lightsThe Northern lights happen after collisions between charged particles released from the sun and gaseous particles in the Earth´s atmosphere. The color variations are due to what type of particles are colliding. Most often it is yellowish green produced by oxygen molecules located around 55 miles above earth. However we can sometimes see redish lights that are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at the heights of up to 150 miles. We also have nitrogen that produces blue or purple-red northern lights.

Since 1880 scientists have been suspecting the connection between the northern lights and the solar activity. In 1950 a research was conducted showing how the electrons and protons from solar activities are blown towards the earth in something called “solar wind”. The surface of the sun is millions of degrees on Celsius. At this temperature, gas molecules collide frequently and explode. By the rotation of the sun these free electrons and protons are thrown from the sun towards the earth by the solar wind. Then they are largely deflected when they hit the earth´s magnetic field.

The earth´s magnetic field is weaker at either the southern or northern pole and hence the particles enter the earth´s atmosphere and collide with the particles at the north or south poles. These collisions emit the dancing lights we know as Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. Most often the dancing happens at the height of 50-60 miles, but can go as high as 400-450 miles above the earth´s surface.

The best time to see the northern lights are normally in the winter time. The long periods of darkness and often the clear nights provide us with many opportunities to watching the northern lights dancing in the sky. Research has also shown that auroral activity is cyclic, and peaking every 11 years. Next peak is going to be around 2013. Hope this has helped you understand better what causes the northern lights and it will be a good start for your Iceland holidays.

What Are The Northern Lights?

Great video from NASA on the northern lights and what they are about

Before we dive into understanding “what are the northern lights” it is important to point out a couple of facts about the space surrounding our Earth. These are mainly things we can´t see with our eyes. One of these things are the air we breath. It is in fact a mixture of several gases – mainly nitrogen and oxygen, but with some traces of hydrogen, helium and some other minor compounds.

What are the northern lights?: The earth as a field of magnet

Another thing we can´t see is the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth. In similar manner as if you have played with a bar magnet and iron filing you have seen how it forms the curved patterns in the magnetic field. The magnet is actually deep in the core of the Earth. As we cant see the magnetic field we normally represent it by drawing lines. Lines that go into and out of the Earth where the poles are. When the lines area closer the field is stronger.

The particles

One more thing that is invisible is the charged particles called plasma. It is in fact a space around the Earth. These particles move in a special way – and are in fact guided by the field as if they were wires. They are the “ammunition” of an aurora.

Powered by the sun

The very quick answer to how the northern lights happen is that electrically charges particles move along the field lines, all the way up to the upper atmosphere, where they collide with gas atoms – and this causes them to give off some light. This all is powered by what is called solar wind, coming from the sun.