The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a natural phenomenon that occurs when electrically-charged solar particles enter the earth’s atmosphere. The resulting show can be spectacular, as brilliant streaks and waves of green, pink, purple, and other colors dance across the night sky.
The Northern Lights are only visible from mid-September to early April, on clear, dark nights with high solar activity. With so many factors affecting their visibility, there’s never a guarantee that they’ll make an appearance, even in the middle of winter. The lights can be active at any time of the night from sunset to sunrise, and the show might last for a few minutes, or a few hours.
The Aurora typically operates in cycles, with two to three nights of strong activity followed by four to five nights with low or no activity. For a higher chance of seeing the Northern Lights, it’s best to stay in Iceland for at least six to seven nights.
The Icelandic Meteorological Office forecasts the Northern Lights based on solar activity on a scale of 0 (little or no activity) to 9 (extremely high activity). The forecast also shows cloud cover, another important factor in whether or not the Northern Lights are visible on Earth. The Aurora Borealis can still put on a dramatic show when the forecast is a 3 or 4. At a 5 or 6, you’re nearly guaranteed to see some Aurora so long as the sky is clear. If the forecast shows a 7 or above, you’re likely in for one of the most incredible experiences of your life.
The forecast is published a few days in advance and includes projected cloud cover at various times throughout the night, so if your plans are flexible, plan your viewing attempt for the clearest locations and most active times for a better chance of a sighting. Several companies offer guided Northern Lights tours and cruises that depart from Reykjavik, and many countryside hotels even offer wake-up calls should the lights appear late at night.
When the Northern Lights are particularly strong, they can be seen dancing over the city of Reykjavik. Even on nights when activity is moderate, they are sometimes visible from the Grótta lighthouse in Seltjarnarnes, a popular viewing point just a few minutes’
If you’re looking for a particularly striking backdrop, consider the multi-tiered Dynjandi waterfall in the Westfjords, the cone-shaped Kirkjufell mountain on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, or the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon on the south coast. But the weather in Iceland can be fickle – and as a result, the Northern Lights can be elusive – so the best place to see the Northern Lights is wherever you happen to be standing when they make their appearance above you.
For the best tips on how to capture this spectacular natural phenomenon, read pro photographer Marta Kulesza's top tips on photographing the lights.
Want to know more about Iceland? Check out our podcast. We chat about where to capture the best photos in Iceland, how to speak like a Viking (almost), and how a social policy got the country to the World Cup.
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