iceland aurora vicki fletcher iceberg lagoon

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Do Iceland’s Northern Lights Live Up to the Hype?

Published October 23rd, 2017

So everyone is talking about the Northern Lights in Iceland. About how bright and colourful they are. About how untouched and incredible the Icelandic landscape is to see them against. About how every single photographer on your Instagram has been to Iceland, seen them, and shared the photo.

So, does the aurora borealis live up to all this hype? Well yeah, it does. So when exactly do you see the Northern Lights? And where is the best place to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Tick the magical Northern Lights off you bucket list with our epic Europe flights on sale now. Then, keep reading for a quick lesson in everything you need to know about the aurora borealis.

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Image: Jacques Van As

What causes the Northern lights?

Physics does. Basically particles from the sun enter the earth’s magnetic field at high speed, throwing them into a high energy state. Then when they drop back to a lower energy state, they release light - the colourful aurora we see.

You’ve likely seen photos of a green aurora, which is most common. But the aurora sometimes comes in purple, pink, red, orange and even blue. It really depends on science and how lucky you are: the intensity of the solar activity, and the elements being ionised as they enter the earth’s atmosphere dictate the colour.

When’s the best time to see the Northern Lights?

Well now.

The northern lights are active and visible for most of the year – from the start of September until the end of April. You can’t see them in summer for one obvious reason: it doesn’t get dark enough. When visiting at any other time of year you’re in with a good chance of seeing them, it just depends on your luck with the weather and solar activity.

Talking about that solar activity though, you might want to make Iceland top of your list for 2018. The visibility of the northern lights depends on a solar cycle that’s about 11 years long. And we’re about to dip into the downswing of that cycle, meaning from next year until 2020 or even 2025, solar activity will be less, so chances of seeing the lights will be less. It doesn’t mean you won’t see them, you’ll just need to be more lucky. Ergo, go now.

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Image: Vicki Fletcher

Does the weather impact how well you can see the lights?

Of course it does. If you can’t see the night sky you can’t see the aurora. But of course just because it’s dark doesn’t mean you’ll see it (read above).

You’ll need a crystal clear night. The Icelandic weather bureau has a cloud cover map that is ridiculously accurate to help you find a part of the island that’s going to be clear.

The darker the night, the better. While you can still see the aurora with a full moon, the brighter the moon is, the more it will dim the aurora. You may have heard that the colder it is, the better your chances of seeing the aurora. That’s not true, so forget it. 
Finally, you should keep a eye on the KP level (strength of the aurora), so you can predict whether tonight’s the night or not. The scale goes from 0 (weakest) to 9 (strongest). As a general rule, if the rating is 3 or above, you’re in with a good chance of seeing it. If it’s 2, your camera might pick it up, but you won’t be able to see it with your naked eyes.

Where’s the best place in Iceland to see the Northern Lights?

There’s no ‘ultimate’ place to see the lights, it’s all down to how strong they are and how good the weather is. That said, your chances of seeing them in Reykjavik are small. The city lights, as in any town, dilute how clearly you can see the night sky, and the aurora. Luckily, Iceland’s population is small, so the number of towns and light pollution from them is minimal. In short, if the forecast is looking good, jump in the car and drive out of the city lights.

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Image: Vicki Fletcher

What’s the best way to see the northern lights in Iceland?

Ok, so you have two main options for seeing the lights.

The first is on an organised tour. Now that you’ve read all of this about the strength of the aurora and the weather, you know it’s difficult to predict whether you’ll see them on a specific night. That said, the tour people are pretty good at this, and if it’s going to go off, they’ll get you to the best place they know to see it. You can also go on a fancy boat cruise from Reykjavik that takes you out to see, away from the light pollution.

Your second option is to drive yourself. If you’re staying in town, you can jump in the car and drive away from the light pollution, or head to a lookout/waterfall/beach where you have a spectacular view.

Then there’s the campervan. Getting around Iceland in a campervan is hands down the best way to see the place, but it’s also the best way to park yourself right where you want to be to see the lights. Pull up, have a kip, and set your alarm for the middle of the night. Voila, northern lights with a cup of hot chocolate in hand. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Feature image by Vicki Fletcher

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Vicki Fletcher

An Australian travel writer and photographer, Vicki loves road trips down unknown tracks, following locals to the best food in town and spending long afternoons people watching in city squares. She's obsessed with colours, stops to admire flowers and dreams of one day restoring a chateau in France. Her top travel tip: always look up. Follow her on Instagram @vickijanefletcher.