Viewing the Northern Lights

Iceland is quite simply one of the best places in the world to get an unforgettable view of the natural display of the Northern Lights. Even if you’ve had a look at photos and video footage of the Northern Lights, there’s nothing that can top the experience of seeing them for yourself. If you’re keen to catch a glimpse at this world famous spectacle while you’re visiting Iceland, take a look below at our Northern Lights guide.

The Northern Lights phenomenon

The Northern Lights are most visible close to the north polar regions and are officially called the Aurora Borealis. In contrast, the Southern Lights found near the south polar regions are known as the Aurora Australis. The scientific explanation behind these incredible multi-coloured light-shows may just surprise you.

The dancing displays of colour which sweep across the skies are the result of powerful eruptions from the sun, which send strong solar winds out into space. These winds collide with gaseous particles that are present in the earth’s atmosphere from a variety of naturally occurring base elements. It’s this collision which produces the intense auroras of light.

Differing colours appear due to the range of elements involved, which is why the Northern Lights can display a kaleidoscope of hues. These include eerie luminescent greens, patches of white, pinks and purples all set against a magnificent backdrop of stars.

The most intense aurora activity happens during what is known as a solar maximum period, when the sun is sending out huge amounts of solar wind. These happen in 11 year cycles and are the best times to see Northern Lights activity at its most spectacular, although any glimpse is sure to blow you away.

Best times of year to view the Northern Lights

If taking in the Northern Lights is a must-do experience on your Iceland holiday, it’s a good idea to plan your visit to coincide with the greatest chance of viewing them.

Generally, the best time of year to see them is in the autumn and winter, between September and March. This is partly because daylight hours are shorter, although some experts advise that the best time to see the most intense displays is quite late into the night. You can expect to find some tours setting out around 5pm in the late afternoon, with others starting much later and continuing on into the early hours.

There is no individual month during this period that’s better than another, but December to February offers the most hours of darkness. With the shortest days starting around 11.30am and finishing around 3.30pm, there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy your very own Northern Lights show.

A second factor to be aware of is that you need as clear a night as possible with minimal cloud. This usually means that temperatures will be at their very lowest, but that’s a small price to pay to experience such immense beauty.

Where to go to see the Northern Lights

Light pollution from cities and towns can make the Northern Lights hard to see, so you’ll need to get to somewhere a little more remote to get the best sighting.

You can take guided hiking and snow-shoe tours out into Iceland’s pristine countryside, where you’ll get the most amazing panoramic views of both the sky and the surrounding landscape. There are also group and individual trips that use snowmobiles to really escape into the wild wilderness of snow and ice.

On a clear night however, even in Reykjavik you don’t have to travel far to get a good look. There are boat excursions which take you away from the bright lights into the darkness out at sea. This way you can enjoy the view of the twinkling city lights in the distance while taking in the Northern Lights’ unforgettable natural majesty.

What science says causes the Northern Lights

These spectacular light effects are now known to be caused by high-speed electrons, oxygen and nitrogen from the sun and the earth’s atmosphere colliding with each other. This collision results in bursts of light that leave ghostly dancing trails at altitudes between 60 and 200 miles above the earth’s surface. Even though the scientific explanation is far less romantic than the myths, the effects are no less awe-inspiring.

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