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Viewing the Northern Lights in Iceland

The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights  – those elusive, vibrant dancing wiggles of light that form in the night sky – can be seen in Iceland from September to March…if you’re lucky. A quick glance through the history of the Iceland Northern Lights forecast will show you just how rarely they appear. You could visit for several days in mid-winter and not see the Lights once, or you could plan a quick stopover in Iceland at the tail end of the season and be blessed with an amazing sighting. It can be a crap shoot.

An aurora is a natural light display, a naturally occurring phenomenon, that happens when gas produced by solar activity on the surface of the sun hits the Earth. It then reacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, which causes the frissons of color.  In Iceland, the most common color seen is green, though rarely some red or purple aurora are seen. Though some have lasted for hours, most only last for a few minutes, streaking across the sky in colorful ribbons, or waving overhead like shimmering curtains.

It is sometimes possible to see the Northern Lights from Reykjavik, but this is rare and only happens when the Lights are particularly strong. Light pollution, along with cloud cover, can greatly reduce the visibility of the aurora, so you have a better chance of seeing them farther from the city (even 30-45 minutes away will do, so many people drive out the Thingvellir National Park to sit and watch).  Cold, clear, cloudless nights present the best chance of a sighting.

There are dozens of tour companies all over Iceland that will take you on a Northern Lights tour. Some simply provide transportation and a guide, others offer up a romantic lobster dinner to compliment the experience.  The upside to these tours is that you have someone else to do the driving, and you can rely on the expertise of the guide in finding the best viewing spot. You’re also sure to learn a lot more about the phenomenon that if you went on your own.

The drawback to booking an organized tour for the Northern Lights  – aside from the cost – is that there’s really no guarantee you’ll see them. While some tour companies will offer a second chance for free, with others, you’ve simply enjoyed a very expensive evening bus ride with dozens of strangers (who also decrease the romance factor in viewing the aurora). My strategy: go without expectations. If you’re in Reykjavik, keep an eye on the Northern Lights forecast, and when there’s a good chance, grab your rental car and go or book a last-minute spot on a Northern Lights tour. If you’re staying outside of the city, just keep an eye on the sky. You might luck out like I did, and step out of your rental cabin in Husavik expecting to see a few stars, and instead see the Northern Lights!

Photo by Tom Olliver