Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice, for good reasons. Its coastlines are fringed with ragged fjords, its interior is speckled with lava fields and active volcanoes and topped with larger-than-life glaciers. Intense, dramatic and colossal: this country is strikingly beautiful and packed with an endless list of natural attractions.
Thanks to its location close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland also happens to be one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis are visible here for over eight months a year, from early September to the end of April.
But seeing Northern Lights in Iceland isn’t as easy as many imagine, because of several factors including weather and solar activity. We spent three weeks chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, and only saw them on four separate nights. Sometimes it depends on your luck too!
Regardless, Iceland is one of my favorite travel destinations, not just for the opportunities to see the Northern Lights opportunities, but also for its ridiculously beautiful landscapes and variety of adventure activities on offer. Iceland is definitely one of the best winter destinations in Europe and highly worth a visit even if you don’t see any Northern Lights.
Northern Lights in Iceland Guide
What are the Northern Lights?
First, let me briefly explain what the Northern Lights are and why they occur. The Northern Lights, scientifically known as Aurora Borealis, are a natural light display in the Earth’s sky.
The northern lights are the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing displays of bright, colourful dancing lights.
Due to the nature of the earth’s magnetic field, the auroras only appear at the poles, usually above the 60° latitude mark in the North, and below the 60° latitude in the South. They are known as ‘Aurora borealis’ in the North and ‘Aurora australis’ in the South.
Iceland, which sits at the latitude of approximately 64° north, is thus in an ideal location for seeing the Northern Lights.
How do Northern Lights Look Like?
It depends on the strength of the aurora, but auroras frequently appear either as a diffuse glow or as “curtains” that extend approximately in the east–west direction. Sometimes they form “quiet arcs”; other times they evolve and change constantly and these are called “active aurora”.
Auroral displays appear in many colours; pale green and pink are the most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported.
Solar activity can be unpredictable though. Even if it is a dark, clear night, there could be absolutely no chance of seeing the auroras, no matter how far north you are. It also means that on a midsummer day, the sky could be alive with Northern Lights; but you won’t be able to see because of the sun.
I was disappointed when we caught our first sight of the Northern Lights. They were faint green light in the far distance, and didn’t look anything like the rippling curtains or shooting arcs that I’d seen in photographs. But then the next night, the Northern Lights really put on a show for us and the bright green streamers were swaying and dancing in the night skies.