Our guide to spotting the northern lights in Iceland

Thursday, 14th November 2019

Destination Specialist

northern lights over thingvellir in south west iceland

The northern lights feature on many peoples’ bucket lists. Also known as Aurora Borealis, this natural phenomenon allures people from all over the world to cold Arctic climes in search of perhaps the Earth’s most wondrous show.

Iceland is a great destination to watch out for this spectacular event, with its high latitude and lack of light pollution, get ready for a show.

What are the northern lights?

The northern lights are created by charged solar particles ejected from solar wind during explosions or flares. If these particles reach the earth, they are diverted around the planet by the Earth’s magnetic field. This field has an important role to play in protecting the earth from what would be dangerous radiation.

As solar particles collide with atoms and particles in the upper atmosphere, they are said to become ‘excited’ and emit photons or light particles, that glow and flicker colourfully, giving us the northern lights.

Why are do they appear in different colours?

The colour of the northern lights depends on which gas the solar particles collide with. Oxygen emits a greenish-yellow burst of light, while photons produced by nitrogen are crimson. This activity takes place in the Earth’s high atmosphere, at 100km or more above the earth’s surface.

What is the best time to see them?

The northern lights are best seen in autumn and winter months (late September to late March). To see them in all their glory you will need to be in an area with dark skies (away from city lights) and clear skies, with little cloud cover, so keep an eye on the weather forecasts for this.

You’ll also want to check the aurora activity index known as the Kp-index. This describes the disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the solar wind. The index ranges from 0-9, with 0 being the lowest amount of activity and 9 being the greatest. A Kp-index rating of 5 or greater is considered a storm and increases your chance of an active night. With all these ingredients in place, wait and hope for a magical experience!

Check Kp-index >


How to photograph them?

To capture that perfect image, set your camera to allow for long exposures of 10-20 seconds. If you use an SLR camera, you’ll need to use a lens with a wide aperture (f2.8 works well) and a wide angle. Keep your camera still with a tripod and use a cable release to trigger the perfect shot.

Importantly, make sure your wrapped up warm for a spot of aurora watching and carry a spare battery, as camera batteries die fast in the cold night, you wouldn’t want to miss that moment.

Did you know...

The ancient Greenlanders thought the northern lights were a sign from the heavens that their ancestors were trying to contact the living.  

Despite all we know today, there is still something quite mystical about these lights, which mesmerise and spellbind those that are fortunate to witness them. So get out there and look to the heavens.

Find out more about our school trips to Iceland >

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