Iceland: A Guide to Seeing the Northern Lights

by  Karen Gardiner | Aug 15, 2013
Northern lights above an igloo
Northern lights above an igloo / unaz/iStock

The celestial phenomenon known as the Northern Lights (or, Aurora Borealis, to give it its proper name)  has amazed people for centuries. These natural light displays occur when solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and, upon impact, emit burning gases that produce different colored lights (green, yellow, and blue) that appear to dance across the sky.

The lights can be seen from places in the far north such as Iceland, Finland, Norway, Alaska and Canada, and their intensity is determined by a solar cycle that lasts 11 years. This December, these solar flares will be at their maximum point in this cycle, promising a remarkably high chance of seeing the aurora. Add to that the very reasonable cost of flights to Iceland in winter, and you have a great winter getaway to start planning .

That said, even at times of maximum solar activity the lights are notoriously unpredictable and there is no guarantee of ever seeing them. So, we wouldn't recommend booking a trip to Iceland for the sole purpose of seeing the lights; plan to visit Iceland for its many other wonderful attractions and consider it a bonus if you do spot them.

Here are some tips for increasing your odds of seeing the northern lights in Iceland:

Choose the Time and Place Carefully

Northern lights viewing season in Iceland is from October through March and the ideal conditions to see them are when the skies are clear and dark. For this reason, you have a better chance of seeing them the further away you are from light pollution. If you are in Reyjavík, try heading for quieter areas such as Grótta light house, Miklatún park, or Öskjuhlíð hill.

An even better idea is to get out of the city and head for Iceland's remote countryside. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the west coast offers a dramatic landscape of lava fields, waterfalls, and a rugged coastline dotted with small fishing villages. The area is also home to Snæfellsjökull volcano, so, even if you don't catch the light show, you can visit the entrance to Jules Vernes' "Center of the Earth."

Take a Tour

Many tour companies offer excursions specifically created for northern lights viewing: Iceland Excursions and Reykjavík Excursions, to name just two. The benefit of taking one of these tours rather than going it alone is that the tour guides have been hunting the aurora for years and know the best places to see them. Also, if you do not see the lights on one of their tours, most companies will let you join the following night's tour free of charge.

There is also the option of taking a boat tour out to see the aurora from the water, but this is not the best option if you are hoping to take some amazing photographs – the swaying of the boat does not complement the long exposures necessary to photograph the lights.

Track Aurora Activity

While the aurora borealis are unpredictable, it doesn't hurt to check some of the forecast resources available. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks has an Aurora forecast on their website that tells you how high the solar activity is each day, and you can even download an app for your iPhone that tracks recent Aurora activity and forecast data.

Let Your Hotel do the Work

Understandably, you may not want to stay up all night every night waiting for the lights to show up, so ask your hotel if they offer a wake-up call for when the aurora appear. Hotel Rangá, in a remote part of South Iceland an hour and 15 minutes from Reykjavík, will wake you up when they see the lights and has such confidence in their optimal, remote and non-light polluted conditions for viewing that they claim on their website: "if you stay with us a few nights you have a fairly good chance of experiencing this wonderful phenomenon." The luxury four-star resort is not a bad place to be even if the lights don't come out to play.

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