19. nov. 2015

Iceland Travel's Ultimate Guide to the Northern Lights

The Swirling Northern Lights

The ever elusive northern lights or the aurora borealis are without a doubt one of the most popular question in my inbox. And who can blame you guys! We've all seen those beautiful northern lights pictures traversing the Internet, and those incredible time lapse videos -  WOW - they just leave you breathless. It's completely understandable that you want to know more! So, after scrolling through questions such as "When is the best time to see the northern lights?", "What are the best northern lights trips?", "How do I take pictures of the northern lights", and of course my personal favourite, "Can I combine a trip to see the northern lights and the midnight sun?", I've decided to create The Ultimate Guide to Seeing the Northern Lights to give you all the aurora facts in one place. It's time to unravel the mystery of the northern lights! Are you ready? Basically, it all boils down to four important factors: what, where, when and how!


The Swirling Northern Lights are one of Mother Natures most dramatic spectaclesThe Swirling Northern Lights

What are the northern lights?

After diving into the subject  it's clear that  "Solar winds hitting the earths magnetic shield creating color" is just not going to cut it! To explain the auroras I have to become a little scientific (sorry, guys!). The northern lights are a series of discharged particles emanating from the sun. These tiny charged beauties gush out of enormous dark spots on the sun's surface creating clouds which travel over 150 million kilometers before reaching Earth. And reaching Earth is not enough! To enter the Earth's ionosphere the particles need to become tangled in the magnetic field and be dragged down to the poles. When the lights are dragged into the poles the collide with gasses, and this collision is what creates the northern lights. The colour of the lights depends on what types of gasses the discharged particles collide with. For instance a collisions with oxygen typically produce green and yellow lights while contact with nitrogen results in reds, violets, and blues. The shape of the lights depends on the magnitude of the solar flares. During periods of minimal solar flares, shapes tend to be less dramatic. But in cycles of strong flares, lights dance, wind, loop and weave through the night sky. 

Where can I see the northern lights?

As the lights stem from particles entering at the Earth's poles, the best places on Earth to see the northern lights will be in and around the Arctic Circle, which means that Iceland is one of the greatest places on Earth to see the northern lights. If you have the chance of staying away from heavily populated areas, that would be a good way to limit the light pollution. However, you can expect to see the lights from the city when they are at their strongest but you will not be getting the same spectrum of colour as you would be getting away from the city lights.

When can I see the northern lights?

Now that you know that Iceland is one of the best places to see the lights, you have to make sure to visit in the right time of year. The fact is you can NOT visit Iceland in the summertime and expect to witness the northern lights at the same time as the midnight sun (sorry, Nancy!). Granted, that would be one of the most awesome holidays ever created but unfortunately, it's impossible! In order to see the northern lights you need darkness so you should consider traveling from around the middle of September until early April. You'll also be needing clear skies to see the lights so it's best to head out when the weather is still. This will always remain a bit of a gamble as we often offer a variety of weather in a single evening, but when hunting for the northern lights patience truly is a virtue!

What is the best way to see the northern lights?

Now that you know the "what, where and when" of the northern lights we only have the "how" to cover.  Whether you'll be staying in Iceland for few days or if you´re only looking for an evening tour, you'll find that it's possible to hunt for the northern lights in all sorts of  manners. When it comes to northern lights planning I've found that it's best to start by looking at the time you have in Iceland. If you are planning a short winter holiday and are able to arrive on any weekday (well, and don't have any qualms about driving yourself!!) then a northern lights self-drive holiday is perfect for you. But if you would rather like to travel with more people and reap the benefits of a specialized tour guide then you should think about booking a northern lights escorted tour. For those of you looking for the perfect northern lights evening tour you have to take into consideration what sort of an experience you are looking for. For instance if you want to travel in a small group and with slightly more freedom, then a northern lights Super Jeep tour is great. The Super Jeep drivers are true professionals and it often feels that they have a built in "Aurora Radar" as they seem to spot the lights from such a distance. If you're looking for the best-priced northern lights tour our popular coach tours are just great as they allow you to get away from the city's light pollution and the excitement is rarely lost despite the size of the group. The northern lights boat tour from Reykjavik is a personal favorite as it gives you such a great panoramic view of the city.  

Are you ready to see the northen lights with us? We have some ideas.

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About the author

 

Sólveig Kolbrún Pálsdóttir

Sólveig is an avid Iceland Travel Expert who loves helping people plan their stay in Iceland. "Hiking Fimmvorduhals and zigzagging down the winding road to Raudisandur beach are two of my favourite Iceland Travel moments! When travelling with my kids, I always make sure I carry empty water bottles in the car so we can stop along the way to fill them up with deliciously fresh mountain water."