Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland
Witness the ethereal phenomenon in the land of fire and ice.
Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.
The ethereal phenomenon forms when electrically charged particles from the sun penetrate Earth's magnetic shield. This ‘solar wind’ is funnelled to Earth’s magnetic poles and collides with particles in the atmosphere, resulting in ionisation that emits the vivid blue, green, purple, yellow and even red lights that have captivated humans for centuries.
As someone who has unsuccessfully attempted to see Aurora Borealis in action on multiple occasions, my advice is to plan your trip around other experiences and treat seeing the auroras as a bonus. So many factors go in to creating the perfect conditions for auroras to be visible that something as simple as a few clouds, snow, moonlight or just bad timing mean you won’t be able to see them – even people who live in Iceland have never seen auroras.
Fortunately, Iceland is home to many unique natural phenomena which can be accessed by bus tour or hire car. The Golden Circle route meanders along Iceland’s south coast and includes some of the country’s most eye-catching scenery. Stop at the 3000-year-old Kerið crater lake with red volcanic rock walls and visit the Great Geysir, after which all other geysers are named.
Nearby you’ll be able to witness the eruption of the of Strokkur geyser which shoots scalding water 40 metre into the air every 10 minutes. Finish the day with a stop at Gullfoss, a powerful glacial waterfall famed for its two-tier fall, and Þingvellir, where the Vikings held the world’s first parliament in 930AD and where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet – thrill-seekers can even dive in the chasm between the plates.
If you’re set on seeing the Northern Lights but don’t want to spend all night driving around, hotels such as Hotel Berg in Keflavik and Hotel Ranga on Iceland’s South Coast offer an aurora wake-up call. Check with reception as hotels often have Aurora Hunters that will call night staff to alert them to aurora sightings.
If you’re staying in Reykjavik, there are a number of bus tours that drive travellers deep into the Icelandic wilderness in search of the best vantage points to view auroras. The locations visited by the tour are decided each night and depends on several factors including weather, visibility, the geomagnetic activity index and topography – you’ll really appreciate the knowledge of local guides. The aurora sightings are not guaranteed but many companies will allow you to rebook again for free if you miss out so it’s worth joining a tour early in your trip to maximise your chances.
Tips to see the Northern Lights
- Travel during September to March.
- Use an app like Aurora Forecast to check the weather conditions.
- Avoid the full moon.
- Get away from the light pollution of city.
- Local knowledge is indispensable.
- Take photos using long exposure to capture auroras that can’t be seen with the naked eye.