The magical Northern Lights in Iceland

Northern Lights in Iceland – Everything You Need to Know

Nordical Travel, Last updated: June 30, 2021

Okay, so it isn‘t exactly a secret that Iceland is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. However, have you ever wondered why exactly that is, or what the Northern Lights even are? Well, wonder no further, because you came to the right place. We have a selection of winter tours for you to choose from, where you might catch a glimpse of the Aurora. Also, we thought we might dig a little deeper into the mystery surrounding this particular phenomenon!

What are the Northern Lights?

The Aurora Borealis, also known as Northern Lights (Aurora Polaris), and the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis), are believed to be created from solar storms. These storms are bursts of charged electrons and protons that come from the surface of the sun. This plasma, upon reaching the upper atmosphere of the planet, becomes ionized and emits a dazzling display in a range of colors. This incredible phenomenon occurs in what is known as the “Auroral Zone”, a 2500 km radial belt focused on the North Pole. There is also one on the South Pole. If you are somewhere in this belt during the dark months, then there is always a chance of seeing them. Generally speaking, the further north into this belt you are, the greater the chances you have of seeing them. This is why Iceland joins Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, and Greenland as being the best places to see the Northern Lights.

Why the Different Colors?

If you look at most Northern Lights photographs, you will mostly see the Aurora as green, and that is because this reaction is occurring lower in the atmosphere where the oxygen levels are more concentrated. If the reaction occurs higher in the atmosphere, then the less concentrated oxygen gives off different colors from yellows to reds and pinks. This is also because different colored reactions are also mixing with each other. Blue and purple can occur in the lowest atmosphere, where the plasma mixes with oxygen and nitrogen. Colors other than green are rarer because more intense solar activity happens with less frequency, and it is these intense plasma streams that are required to penetrate different levels in the atmosphere.

Legends of the Aurora

So, we now know the science behind it, but we didn‘t always know this. It was Galileo who first used the name Aurora Borealis. He took the name “Aurora”, from the Greek Goddess of the Dawn, and “Borea”, the Greek word for ‘Northern Wind’. Before we began to understand them, people would suspect more supernatural, mystical explanations. It wasn‘t always positive either, despite their beauty. The Vikings believed the lights meant many things. For example, they believed that they were manifestations of the gods, such as Odin. Or, that they were reflections of the armor worn by the Valkyries, Odin’s emissaries, who transported the souls of the dead to Valhalla. The Vikings also thought that the lights signaled the opening of the Bifrost (Bifröst), a celestial bridge that linked the kingdom of Asgard (Ásgarður) to the mortal realm.

The Aurora in Other Cultures

You can find many different interpretations of what the lights were and what they meant in, for example, Inuit, Celtic, Sami, and Native American cultures. Despite their many, varied interpretations, they would normally all share a common belief in a different plane of existence, of gods and monsters, the passing of loved ones, souls fallen in battle, mystical animal spirits, good luck, or certain doom. We now know more about why they appear, but it is nice to know that we don’t know absolutely everything about them, and so they continue to keep a little mystery to themselves.

How do I see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Now, you’re going to have to remember here that the lights don’t always make an appearance. The Northern Lights are always active, but because there is no darkness during the summer, this means that winter is the best time. Your first step is to pick a clear night. Clouds are something you do not want. You can have the most magnificent and powerful display of the Aurora, but if it’s stuck behind a thick, blanket of cloud, you have very little chance of seeing it. The general tip? The more stars you see, the better the night could be.

Right Place at the Right Time

Next, you want to find an area where there is no light pollution. This means that standing in downtown Reykjavík is quite possibly the worst place to be because all the street lights and all other illumination are going to ruin your view of the sky. Don’t get us wrong, the lights can be seen from the city, but it has to be a super clear night, with super-strong solar activity. So, the best thing to do is head out to a clear spot. You don’t really even need to go so far from the city center, just far enough where you can stare to the north, and you have any light pollution a good distance behind you. However, we do recommend getting right out of the city if you can.

The final step? Well, that’s easy. You wait. The lights don’t run to a schedule, you know? Sometimes they are shy, and other times it’s as if they know they have an audience and want to perform. However, with a bit of patience and luck, you can strike gold (or green, or pink, or blue) No two nights are the same.

Scanning the Skies and Staying Safe

When looking for the Northern Lights in Iceland, it is really important to remember safety. It is recommended to always find a safe and publicly accessible space in which to pull over and turn the car lights off. This space should be a good distance from the road so that other cars can pass without incident. Also, make sure that you don’t venture onto the road yourself in the dark night. The lights may distract you, but it’s super important to always remember where you are. The same goes for driving, we recommend that the driver always stays focused on the road, whilst the navigators and Aurora spotters keep their eyes fixed towards the heavens.

Here is a very useful website from the Meteorological Office of Iceland, here you can monitor the weather, cloud cover, and activity level.

Camera Settings for the Aurora Borealis

For those with a fancy camera, you probably already know what settings to use. These are our recommendations to get that dynamite shot with your phone:

  • Step 1 – Set your phone camera to manual. There are apps you can use, but we find that manual settings work best. So, in the case of an Android phone, switch to pro mode.
  • Step 2 – Set your ISO to 800 and build up from there. The higher the ISO settings, the more “noise” will be in your photo.
  • Step 3 – Your exposure should be an optimal 15 seconds.
  • Step 4 – Don’t move! Use a tripod if you have one, or at least be able to set your phone somewhere where it will not move at all.
  • Step 5 – Cross your fingers.

No Car? No Problem!

If you head on over to have a look at our countryside packages you can check out the guided experiences on offer to plan your Aurora adventure.

Happy hunting!

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