Ahhh – the northern lights. Or the Aurora Borealis, which I think is a more enigmatic name for them. This collision between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere and make grown people cry. Either of joy or disappointment (when they fail to show). And every tourist’s favorite conversation topic during the sometimes challenging winter months in Iceland.
I know I’m speaking from a position of Aurora privilege when I say that it never ceases to amaze just how excited people are about the northern lights and the lengths they will go to see them. We who live here have grown up with them and kind of take them for granted. Don’t get me wrong, I like the northern lights and I think they’re beautiful but if I didn’t have folks following me on various social media accounts that show their appreciation for my (very bad) photos of the northern lights – I’d probably stay home most of the time and watch Netflix rather than freezing my butt off gazing at the sky.
I do kind of understand the draw though, it might be a once in a lifetime thing for many people who visit us which is why I always try to give our walking tour guests the heads up when the forecast is really good and I stop people on the streets and point up if I see them. Because I’m nice that way.
During the winter months, I sometimes feel all I do is answering questions about the the northern lights but now that summer is coming to an end and the aurora season is upon us, there’s one northern lights question that seems to be on everyone’s mind: What is the best time to see them?
Question: When is the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland?
Let’s start with the basics, there are three things you need in order to have a chance at seeing the northern lights:
The fact that you need darkness to see the northern lights automatically eliminates the summer months when it’s bright all the time. The earliest we usually see the northern lights is after the middle of August and the latest somewhere around the beginning of May.
November to March are the darkest months of the year in Iceland and that’s why we often talk about those months as the Northern Lights season. The northern light tours usually start running around the middle of September though and are operated until around the middle of April.
So the first thing you have to think about is visiting Iceland when it’s actually dark enough to see the lights.
If there’s one thing we’re not lacking in the winter it’s darkness, but there are other things to consider too. It’s not enough that it’s just dark, you also have to be blessed with a clear sky if you want to fully experience the aurora. It doesn’t have to be completely clear, although those are the best possible conditions of course, but the sky at least has to be visible through the clouds.
Speaking of clouds, they mostly lie 2-8 km above the ground while the northern lights are usually about 90 -130 km above the ground. So you don’t have to be a genius in math (or even understand the metric system) to figure out that if it’s completely cloudy, you won’t see any northern lights.
Unfortunately, the winter months tend to have the most precipitation here in Iceland and where there is rain or snow there are also clouds. The good thing about the Icelandic weather is that it changes quickly and often (even within the same day) so even though it snows in the morning the sky might be completely clear by night. Since you can’t predict what the weather will be like months in advance (or even a day) you have to rely on a little bit of luck when it comes to the weather. The worst weather tends to be between Novermber and March, although in between storms and mayhem (not real mayhem – just over-dramatic “why is the weather so bad” type of mayhem) we also often got beautiful crisp days that almost makes you forget about the bad days.
If you stay in Iceland for a week in winter, I would say there is a decent chance that you’ll get at least one clear night (or at least clear enough to see the sky) during your stay.
By the way, a lot of people think it needs to be cold to see the northern lights but this is not true. The reason people associate cold nights with northern lights is the fact that it’s usually cold when the sky is clear. I don’t know enough about meteorology to explain that one but I’ve lived here long enough to know that it’s true.
Great, so you’ve got this covered – all you have to do is come to Iceland for a week somewhere between September and May and you’ll have enough darkness and a somewhat good chance of a clear night.
If only it was that simple!
We have one thing left to talk about from the three northern lights essentials and that’s the aurora activity. Statistically, the northern lights are most active in March, April, September, and October. The most active period of the day (statistically) is usually between 11 pm and 1 am although they can happen at any time outside of that period too.
There are many things that affect the activity level: sunspots, coronal holes and solar flares (I hope that these are not all the same thing – I really know nothing about astronomy) some of which are predictable while others are somewhat random. Thankfully, you don’t have to be an astronomer to figure this out because there are northern lights forecasts available that will help you with this (The Icelandic Met Office – Space Weather Prediction Center). Although most of them will only predict the coming days some have a 27 day outlook that might help you decide whether or not to do a trip on short notice. Apparently, Kp-level of 3 and higher is promising.
You need all three of the things mentioned above to come together to see the northern lights. I read a lot of different things while researching this post (mostly reliable Icelandic online sources) and it’s my conclusion that the best time to visit Iceland for the northern lights is probably late September/early October. End of March/beginning of April could be good too but the weather tends to be nicer in the fall than early spring.
Having said that – nature, despite being predictable to some extent, is still nature and we cannot control it. So even though the statistics say that something is likeliest to happen at a certain time it doesn’t mean it necessarily will. So my advice to anyone wanting to visit Iceland in winter is to not make the Northern Lights the main thing about your trip. Treat it as a special bonus if you see them but come for all the other great things you can see and do in Iceland to avoid disappointment.
If you see them: YAY [insert emotion]!
If you don’t see them: bummer but you just did a snowmobile ride on a glacier/went inside a volcano/saw Orcas in their natural habitat (to name a few) and it was amazing!
The northern lights should just be your cherry on top.