Iceland is among the best destinations in the world to become a lucky observer of the Northern Lights, a unique phenomenon of beauty. The shifting and changing shapes and colours create one of the finest show of the sky! When the sky is clear, the hunt of the Aurora Borealis is a popular activity and something to not miss. Here is everything you need to know about the Northern Lights with all information and our best tips…
What are the Northern Lights?
In scientific terms, northern lights – or aurora borealis – are caused by the collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere.
At a temperature of millions of degrees Celsius, collisions between gas molecules are frequent and explosive above the surface of the sun. Free electrons and protons are thrown from the sun’s atmosphere by the rotation of the sun and escape through holes in the magnetic field. Blown towards the earth by the solar wind, the charged particles are largely deflected by the earth’s magnetic field and some particles enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles.
These collisions emit light that we perceive as the dancing lights.
Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. Green, the most common color of northern lights, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 100km above the earth. The red colors, more rare, are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 300km . Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red northern lights..
What is the best period to see the Northern Lights?
You can see the northern lights when it is dark and when the sky is clear. It is possible to see them from the end of August to the end of April. The most popular period is from November to January mainly because it is the period of the darkest months. That means more time to hunt the northern lights. In January and February, the weather is often more cloudy.
Sometimes you can see them for few minutes, sometimes for a crazy night… You have to keep in mind that it’s an unpredictable phenomenon.
How can I know what night will be good to see them?
You can check the Aurora Forecast by the Icelandic Meteorological Office:
This page presents reliable information about cloud cover and activity.
How to read it?
– On the map, you can see the cloud cover. White color means no clouds. Dark green means very cloudy. The different shades of green mean more or less cloudy. To see the northern lights, you need to be in a white or light green area, that means no clouds or a little bit cloudy but still good enough. In that case, no hesitation: go out to hunt the lights 🙂 If you are in a dark green area, your chance are not the best: the lights are active up in the sky at around 90km. The clouds are lower and will block the view.
– On the right side, under Aurora forecast, you can see numbers from 1 to 9. They are a combination of how probable, on a scale from 0 to 9, are the lights to come out and how active they will be. A level activity of 2 or 3 is actually really good. 4 or 5 will be a fantastic night. It almost never goes above to 6. Even if it is just 1, it is still worth to go out.
Unfortunately the forecast doesn’t say at what time the northern lights will come and for how long they will stay. It could be at 21:00 or 00:00, for few minutes or for all the night 🙂
Even if the cloud cover is very accurate on this forecast, the northern lights activity is not an exact science: there is always a part of luck involved. We recommend to check this website day by day like the weather change quickly. In any ways, if you are outside, just keep your eyes to the sky, because you never know…
What is the best way to go to hunt the Northern Lights?
To go and hunt the Northern Lights, if the sky is clear and the forecast is good, you can absolutely drive yourself and you should be able to see them. Please feel free to come and check with our staff during the reception opening time: we’ll give you tips, check the forecast and road conditions and we’ll indicate you some good spots where you can go.
However, we recommend to book a tour with a professional guide to enjoy the benefits of:
– To not worry about driving in the dark, so you can focus on looking out for the lights
– Most of the company will allow you to rebook a tour for free if you go and don’t see anything
– They know where to go and they are used to hunt the lights and find the best spots.
Can I see the Northern Lights from Reykjavik Downtown?
Nothing is impossible with the Northern Lights! Even if it’s not the best spot, that’s possible. Remember that you need a clear sky and to be in the dark. You can try near the ocean or close to the Perlan. If you’re standing in the lights of the city, the activity has to be strong to allow you to see the northern lights. They will be more powerful outside the city.
How to make a good picture of Northern Lights?
The best to make good pictures is to have a proper camera. Smartphones are not really good for Northern Lights pictures. Have a tripod is necessary and will avoid the blurry pictures.
For the settings of your camera, the best is to set the ISO on 800 and the aperture at 3.5 or lower. Exposure time should be ideally between 10 to 20 seconds. Focus on a light source in a distance. This could be the moon, a very bright star or a light from a farm, a car, etc…
You’ll probably have to change the settings according the intensity of the lights. But the most important is to not forgot to enjoy the show without always looking it through your camera 🙂
Information to keep in mind
Book a tour will help you to have the best advices and spots
Northern Lights are unpredictable: we never know if they’ll come and for how long… But after all, it’s also a part of the magic.
All is a matter of patience… And luck 🙂
Don’t forget to bring warm clothes
Take some hot drinks and food with you
We recommend you to have a look on the video below from Inspired by Iceland. They explain that very well, and the video is better than a thousand of words 🙂