Northern lights in Iceland

Date 15 October 2023

Northern lights in Iceland

Northern lights in Iceland

The Northern Lights are an unforgettable sight to any lucky enough to catch this marvelous dance of lights in the sky.

Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see an aurora borealis! This is without a doubt the favorite natural wonder that draws people from all over to the Icelandic winter.

What is an aurora borealis?

Aurore boréale Budir

Aurora Borealis over Budir Church - Anna Om @fotolia

The aurora borealis or northern lights are natural phenomena caused by very powerful solar flares. Large quantities of charged particles are ejected by the Sun, escape to form solar winds, which splash across the Earth's magnetic field.

Thankfully, the planet is protected from this solar wind and its radioactive damage, except at the north and south poles. The particles mix with atoms and ions in the ionosphere generates the visible spectacle known as the Northern Lights.

The aurora borealis can be observed at latitudes close to 70 degrees. Siberia, Alaska, Northern Canada and Scandinavia are therefore the most suitable places to observe the Northern Lights with the naked eye.

Of course, Iceland is one of the top choices in this short list of countries for hunting Northern Lights!

These auroras are located between 100 and 150 kilometers above us in the ionosphere. In most cases, they will dance for ten to thirty minutes before fading. Depending on the altitude at which the solar wind strikes, the color will vary from yellow-green for an aurora around 100 kilometers up, to red for those 300 kilometers away.

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?

Aurore boréale Islande

Often, the auroras seen in Iceland are yellow or green, but can be purple or even blue. Given Iceland's location and variety of viewing spots, is one of the best places on the planet to observe this phenomenon.

The hunt is on, but there are certain conditions to meet in order to increase your chances of spotting one in the wild.

The 4 conditions to see an aurora borealis

  • The time of year

Of course, the season is critical, and the best one is winter. Auroras are most visible in winter, ideally between September and March, though you can also catch them in April or even August, but this is a rare occurrence.

The math is simple: the longer the night period (19 hours in January in Iceland), the greater the chance of seeing them.

From October to March, auroras start to appear from 8PM until dawn at 7AM, so if you aren't an early riser the ideal viewing time is 8PM to midnight.

  • A clear sky

The next condition is a clear cloudless night sky, and of course ambient lighting will be a huge factor, so if you are close to a city the show will be dim.

In summary, everything must be done to avoid light pollution. Don't stay too close to the capital if you want to have the best view.

  • A cool night

Finally, visible polar auroras are more likely to occur on a cool night.

Without an organized tour with local specialists, your best bet is to rely on the Icelandic weather site, which indicates the chance of auroras appearing from day to day as well as possible viewing locations on the map.

As mentioned, clear skies will maximize your chances, so if you are hunting for lights in the sky, head for the “white” areas on the aurora weather map.

  • The KP index: solar activity indicator

Prévisions Aurores boréales

The weather site will provide a rating of 1 to 9 called the KP index. This KP value indicates the level of activity between the Earth's magnetic field and the solar winds.

The more solar winds collide with the Earth's magnetic field, the greater their force and speed, the greater the turbulence. Specifically, the KP index tells you the expected luminosity of the reaction.

Activity with an index of 1 is the lowest, and 9 is strongest, which means that an intense geomagnetic storm is occurring. If the scale shows a value less than 3, you are unlikely to see one, but anything above 4 is a pretty good sign!

On the screenshot above, we see a KP of 5 at the top right, which is excellent! The map indicates that there are few clouds in the Jökulsárlón region (white area on the map), so we can assume this will be a great viewing station on this specific day.

Use an application to have the best chance of spotting them

Aurore boréale

Aurora Borealis at Thingvellir

In addition to the vedur.is site above, many mobile applications can guide you in your hunt for aurora borealis: we recommend “My Aurora Forecast” or “Northern Eye Aurora”.

These mobile applications are reliable enough to “predict” the odds of observing them, and even ping your phone with alerts when the time is ripe. These alerts can really make a difference, so when that alarm rings, look to the skies!

Finally, there are two “strategies” to hunting aurora borealis:

  • Find a viewing spot with the tools mentioned above and wait there, headlights off, for the lights to appear
  • Keep driving, following the maps in the apps, to try and find the perfect spot at the perfect moment

Where is the best place to spot the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Aurore boréale Islande

Technically, anywhere in Iceland can fit the bill as long as you are away from light pollution. The best viewing station to catch the most intense auroras could be anywhere on the island, so there really isn't a “best place.”

In Iceland in winter, it's common to see people just waiting in parked cars, with the heating on and the headlights off, waiting for the sky to start the show.

Near Reykjavík there are a few spots outside the city center that are suitable for viewing. The Seltjarnarnes Peninsula and the Reykjavík Lighthouse are local favourites where Icelanders like to wait for the Northern Lights to arrive with a view of Mount Esja. If you have no plans to leave the capital, this is a good solution.

If you have a vehicle, however, we recommend you travel outside Reykjavík and rely on the Icelandic aurora weather map, mentioned above, to find the right viewing station. Popular tourist sites such as Jökulsárlón or Skógafoss in the south have very little light pollution and will make for a particularly photogenic light-show.

Here are a few recommendations of aurora viewing sites that are easy to access in winter:

  • Jökulsárlón
  • Seljalandsfoss
  • Skógafoss
  • Thingvellir
  • Dyrhólaey

Another popular solution is to find a lakeside viewing spot as this will create a symmetry effect with the reflection of the water, but furthermore will increase the luminosity of the subject for some truly incredible photographs. 

Maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights via an organized excursion

Aurore boréale Hvitserkur

Polar aurora in front of Hvitserkur - JesusMGarcia @fotolia

Many travel agencies offer 3-4 day “Northern Lights Week-Ends” or aurora borealis excursions that you can book at your leisure.

Obviously, there are no guarantees you will see these northern lights but working with professionals will maximaze your chances. The specialists know how to find the right place at the right time based on weather data and years of experience, so you can trust they will take you to the best spots.

If the weather conditions are not favorable for observing the Northern Lights and the outing gets cancelled, rest assured the organization will let you join the excursion the following day.

Recommended excursions to observe the Northern Lights:

Photographing the Northern Lights: tips and tricks

Aurore boréale photo

If you ever have the chance to see an aurora, you'll kick yourself if you don't get a photograph, even a bad one! The sweeping auroras in the Icelandic sky are absolutely magical, a dance of colors in the sky, and if you want to snap a good photo you need to be prepared.

The hardware

  • For best results we strongly recommended a DSLR or mirrorless camera that has a “manual” mode.
  • The lens must capture a maximum of light in a dim setting, so having a wide-angle lens capable of opening at least f/2.8 is key, otherwise you will have to increase the ISO which can generate a great deal of “noise” in the shot.
  • Finally, you'll need a tripod for stability during long exposure and if possible a trigger to avoid “motion blur” when you press the button.

Camera settings

Once the tripod is set up, you have to adjust your settings carefully. Switch to the manual mode and adjust the brightness.

  • Most photographers recommend a minimum of 400 ISO and 10 and 20 seconds of exposure time depending on how fast the aurora moves. Once these are locked in, everything depends on your device, and practice makes perfect so experiment, and avoid raising the ISO too much to avoid noise.
  • Finally, the camera should be set to infinity focus, as the default autofocus setting will struggle to focus in the dark.