What are Northern Lights? Where is the best place to spot them in Iceland, and when is the best time to see them? I will try to answer all of your most frequently asked questions about the Northern Lights in Iceland in the following blog article.
First of all, let’s start with some general facts: the so-called Northern Lights, also known as polar lights or aurora borealis, all refer to the same natural phenomenon. You can spot them in destinations close to the Arctic Circle in winter between September and April. The lights can shine in many different colors, from green to purple and even red, transforming the night sky into a magical dance floor.
How do Northern Lights appear? What causes Northern Lights?
Northern Lights are created when gaseous particles in the earth's atmosphere collide with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. The electrically charged particles such as protons and electrons are hurled into the atmosphere when so-called solar storms occur on the surface of the sun.
The most common color of the Northern Lights is a pale yellowish-green. It’s produced by oxygen molecules that are about 60 miles above the earth’s surface. The different colors that we might see depend on the kind of gas particles that are colliding with the particles coming from the sun’s atmosphere, and their distance to earth. For example, the red Northern Lights can rarely be seen, as the oxygen molecules they are produced by, are about 200 miles away from earth. It might not happen very often, but even blue or purple-red Northern Lights that are produced by nitrogen are sometimes visible.
When and where can I spot the Northern Lights?
Northern Lights can best be seen from regions above the Arctic Circle (also called the polar circle). That means they can be spotted in Arctic destinations like Iceland and large parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but also in Canada and Alaska.
The same applies to southern polar regions. Here, the lights are called aurora australis and are visible at the same time as aurora borealis. The best time to see Northern Lights is between September and March, but in April there are also good chances to catch them, as I can confirm. Due to the midnight sun that shines for almost 24 hours, you won’t be able to see the Northern Lights during the summer months.
What requirements have to be met, to see the Northern Lights?
There are a few conditions that have to be met, to observe the Northern Lights. Decisive for the sighting is:
The solar activity
Without a solar storm, you won't be able to see aurora borealis. Whether it makes sense to look for the Northern Lights can be checked out on various websites. For Iceland, we recommend the website of the Icelandic Weather Institute. Here you can find a three-day aurora forecast of possible Northern Lights' activity. Furthermore, a map of Iceland shows in which regions the night sky is clear (white areas). Of course, there are also smartphone apps predicting the Northern Lights' visibility. So in case you are wondering where to go, to catch the lights, always check out the aurora activity on the website mentioned above.
To raise your chances of experiencing the Northern Lights, you should always look for a place that is far away from artificial light sources. It is best to drive out of the city and look for an uninhabited area, e.g. a lonely hilltop. So make sure, you stay away from light polluted areas (that also means that it’s very unlikely that you will see Northern Lights in Reykjavik!). By the way, it’s also good to keep in mind if it’s a full moon night, as the moonlight might also prevent you from seeing the Northern Lights.
A clear night sky for a Northern Lights Safari
Clouds can quickly put your Northern Lights hunt to an end. On starry and cool nights, the chances to see Northern Lights are high, given there was enough sun activity. So again, check out the aurora forecast before leaving your place and ask locals for good spots to catch them nearby.
How do I take good pictures of the Northern Lights?
Even if you don't have professional camera equipment, there are ways to capture the natural phenomenon. With modern digital cameras, you can get useful results and at least take some pictures to prove your luck.
Many cameras have manual image programs, to choose your own settings. Choose an ISO number between 800 and 3200. The higher the ISO number, the higher the chances of “grain” in your pictures. For example, if there is snow in the area, you should rather work with a lower number, otherwise, you can test with a higher one. In addition, the exposure time is decisive. The longer you expose, the more intense the colors will appear. You should test with different exposure times between 15 and 30 seconds. Besides, I highly recommend taking a tripod with you, in order not to blur the pictures. It is best to combine different settings of the above-mentioned factors and try them out for the respective situation.
The Northern Lights can also be captured with a smartphone camera. To keep the camera still with a long exposure time, it is recommended to use a tripod. Set the camera's focus manually to infinity or use night mode if available. If your cell phone does not offer manual control, apps such as Northern Lights Photo Taker or ProCam X Lite can make these functions possible. You should not use a flash and also dim the screen brightness so as not to impair night vision or disturb others. The cold environment can drain the smartphone battery more quickly, so you should always take a power bank with you if you want to stay outside for a longer period of time.
And of course, you can always ask a professional guide for help, for example, if you book a guided Northern Lights tour with us. Locals usually know best. ;-)
Good to know about auroras:
Sometimes Northern Lights are only weakly visible in the sky and can easily be confused with clouds. Trust me, most tourists miss out on the Northern Lights, because they don’t know that they are already looking at them! If you point a digital camera at the supposed Northern Lights, you can quickly see by the color on the screen whether you are really looking at them. Also, don’t expect them to be bright green, when you look at the sky. Northern Lights look different in real life than they do on a camera screen.
Additionally, don’t expect to see the lights before local midnight, which is usually said to be the best time to go for a hunt. That is also why you should make sure to layer up and bring something hot to drink while you wait, as you might start freezing pretty quickly. Also, remember to pack spare batteries, as batteries die quickly at low temperatures.
If you wonder how long aurora borealis last: that really depends. Sometimes they will last only for a few minutes, but if you get very lucky, they might even last a couple of hours! You can never know. When I saw the Northern Lights, some disappeared after about 15 minutes, but then appeared on the other side of our group and lasted even longer!
In any case, it is a very special experience to see aurora borealis with your own eyes. In case they're on your bucket list we recommend our Northern Lights tours between September and March, e.g. our rental car trip “Winter Tour South and West Coast.” If you have any questions, please contact us! We will be happy to advise you.
In the end, don’t take too many pictures, but also just take some time to look at the sky with your own eyes, and not through your camera, and enjoy one of nature’s most magical wonders!