Iceland's Iconic Northern Lights - All You Need to Know

3 silhouettes admiring the Northern Lights in Iceland. Photo by Björgvin Hilmarsson.

The Northern Lights are something of a fairy tale for people. They possess an undeniable mystic quality that exists long after you have seen them. As a phenomenon you grow up hearing about, it is not rare to spend your whole life hoping to one day see their shimmering colors in the night sky. This spectacle can be seen from various points close to the Arctic Circle, but the Northern Lights in Iceland are known to be on an entirely different level. The only problem is that there is very little known about them, despite their obvious beauty. From what causes their glowing hue to when to spot them at their best, here is all you need to know about the Northern Lights.

What are the Northern Lights?

 

Green Northern Lights in Iceland dancing in the sky and reflected on the water

Also known as the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights have been enchanting explorers and scientists alike for millennia. You would be forgiven for thinking the lights come exclusively in neon greens, icy blues and violet, but lemon yellows and shocking pinks are also common. After years of pondering over how they were caused, people eventually came to discover that these sweeping, dancing brushstrokes of color are the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with various gases in the atmosphere. In some cases, collisions with nitrogen cause red blooms to cover the sky. For such a scientific description, the lights have been behind many worldwide myths and legends for as long as people can remember. In fact, one Icelandic folklore says that if pregnant women look at the lights while giving birth, they will have cross-eyed children.

You Can Only See the Northern Lights in Certain Hot Spots

The reason the Northern Lights remain just a story for many people is that they cannot be seen from every country on earth. The general rule is that the closer to the North Pole you are, the more likely you are to see the lights in all their glory. Among the best places to see them are Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland, and Iceland, which are all in the Aurora Zone. As somewhere that is both easily accessible, and which boasts incredible natural scenery, Iceland is consistently a popular choice among travelers. Group tours into the wilderness and camping under the night sky are just two ways you can catch the best show. Interestingly, you can also see the Northern Lights’ southern counterpart- the Aurora Australis- when you are close to the South Pole.

Not Every Night Will Show Them

 

Three people admiring green polar lights and orange clouds in Iceland

Just as with hot temperatures or winter snowfall, the Aurora Borealis comes about during specific seasons in the year. Though there have been sparse glimpses of the Polar Lights in summer months, the best time to catch sight of them is in the cold, dark nights of winter, when there are hardly any clouds in the sky. If you are closer to a bustling city, you should escape to the countryside to lower the chances of pollution from city lights interfering with your visibility of the Northern Lights. Even then, sightings are not predictable, but it must be remembered that much of the lights’ beauty is in their fleetingness. To increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights further, you should make sure to follow regional Aurora alerts. Vedur.is, the weather station in Iceland, has an Aurora Borealis predictor for the country on their website. It lets you know on a scale from 0 to 9, with 9 being very strong, what the strength of the lights will be. For best results, check it about 12 hours or less before you want to head out to hunt the mysterious and alluring Polar Lights.

Don't Forget Your Camera 

When the Northern Lights display such a vivid scene, it is no surprise that viewers like to store every second of them as best they can. Unfortunately, while there is much about the Northern Lights that perplexes people, added to this list is their reluctance to be captured on camera. Luckily, there are many tips and tricks out there to help people shoot the lights in the same way your eyes are seeing them. Firstly, you should bring a high-definition camera with you, such as a DSLR. Most smart phones with certain apps will suffice as well. Having a tripod with you will also help with filming, where you can set it up on high, level ground before pointing it at a clear night sky. Then, it’s wise to play around with your camera settings until you find the perfect focus, aperture and exposure. Using long exposure and shutter times (5-25 seconds) are necessary to capture the lights. This may take some practice, but it will be more than worth it in the long run.

Is seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland on your bucket list? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.

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