Northern Lights in Iceland

Sunday, 30 Sep 2012  |  Derek Dan
aurora, iceland, northern light

Northern Lights a.k.a. Aurora Borealis, a spectacular natural phenomenon, a magnificent display of green lights dancing in the night sky.

Northern Light Countries

North Aurora Oval

Contrary to intuition, the best locations to watch the Aurora are neither the North Pole nor The South Pole.

The lights usually circle the poles in an elliptical band, known as Aurora band, Aurora ring or Aurora oval, the greatest Aurora activity is usually offset from the poles by 20 degrees or so.

Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica are some of the best places to see the Aurora. But these places are either uninhabited, or the weather condition is too harsh for visitors.

The North Aurora band passes through Canada, Russia, and most of the Nordic countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland.

In the south, Southern Light, or Aurora Australis can be seen in New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina.

Iceland and Northern Lights

Iceland, directly beneath the Aurora Band

What makes Iceland one of the best places for Northern Lights?

In Iceland, you do not need to travel to far-flung remote areas. The country capital – Reykjavik – located at 64.1333°N, lies perfectly within the sweet spot of the Northern Light band.

Reykjavik, like other cities of the world, suffers from light pollution, albeit to a lesser degree. And if we really craving for a magnificent display of the sky show, we should try to eliminate, as much as possible, the man-made lights.

Fortunately, we do not need to travel far to escape the city lights. From the center of Reykjavik, head towards the northeast direction, a mere 30 minutes drive will take you to the city outskirt.

Thingvellir National Park

View Hilton Nordica to Thingvellir National Park, Iceland in a larger map
Trunk road þingvallavegur, leading to Thingvellir National Park.

Less than 50km from the heart of Reykjavik, Thingvellir National Park is famous among the Aurora community, both local and foreign. In fact, you do not need to reach the Park. Many Aurora watches and tour companies (carrying big group of visitors in a bus) will just stop by along the roadside of þingvallavegur.

There, you have complete darkness, well …almost, except the headlights from passing-by vehicles.

Tips for successful Northern Lights hunt

Mid September until March is the best time, known as the Northern Light season in Iceland.

It's not possible to see Northern Light during summer time.

Iceland is located just outside the arctic circle (66°N), like other countries of the same latitude, it's experiencing summer white night.

Midnight twilight for at least one month before and after the Summer Solstice (21st June). It's so bright that you can read a book outside at 12 midnight.

Super Clear Sky

The northern part of the skies must have unblocked view, because the light normally appears directly above the north horizon.

Cloud will spoil the light feast, it will either block the light completely, so you don’t see any light, or it will reduce the charms of the majestic Northern Lights.

In Iceland, weather is unpredictable, but generally the chances of crystal clear sky are higher during winter time.

Iceland Meteorological Office is a good source for weather forecast, but don’t rely on it. Sunny sky in the morning and afternoon doesn’t guarantee clear sky in the night. So don’t plan your trip too early. In fact, most of the Northern Light tour operators in Iceland will only confirm their departure around 5 or 6 in the evening.

Therefore, the rules is simply, if the evening ends up with crystal clear skies, or just some scattered patches of clouds, then it might be a good night for Northern Lights.

Northern Lights Forecast

Before you dress up happily or sign up for Northern Lights Tour (self driving is recommend if you already rented a car), don’t forget to check out this Aurora forecast website

What if you got a super clear night sky but the Aurora forecast showing low Aurora activity? Don’t be disappointed… Yet.

You may already know the sun has a solar cycle that peak out every 11 years. But in fact it has highs and lows within a day.

On the same site, under the heading “Current Aurora Activity”, gives you a pictorial representation of the Aurora strength, updated every hourly or so.

Solar flare - a sudden spike of solar activities, can happen anytime, and is likely to happen, anytime! When this happen you will see it reflected in the diagram as intense red.

Left - Low aurora activity; Right - Strong aurora activity

Northern Lights in Reykjavik

Sometimes, the Aurora is strong enough to be visible in the city.

It happened in the night of 18th Sep 2012, the hourly forecast was showing exceptionally strong activity.

With my camera on hand, I stepped out from Hilton Nordica Hotel (where I have been staying for 2 months) and witnessed some breathtaking display of the Aurora, lasted for approximately 1 hour. It was my second Aurora encounter.

Aurora, Grand Hotel in the background
Aurora and small cottage
Aurora appear high on the seaside, Reykjavik

The first encounter was exactly 1 week ago. Together with my colleagues, we went on a Northern Light Tour, the bus departed at 9:30, bringing us to Thingvellir National Park, we waited for almost 2 hours, finally our patience paid off with a glimpse of the Northern Lights, just before midnight, though it only lasted for less than 15 minutes.

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