Lots of people visit Iceland in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights (aka the “Aurora Borealis”). And who can blame them?! They’re breathtaking! To that end, many tour companies offer “Northern Lights Chasing Tours” or something similarly titled that promises to take you out and about in search of this fabled atmospheric phenomenon. But what they don’t promise is that you’ll actually see the Northern Lights . . .
You need 3 things in order to see the Northern Lights: (1) solar activity; (2) darkness; and (3) clear skies.
This is the meat and potatoes and what actually causes the Norther Lights: no solar activity, no deal. Our sun will sometimes throw off various particles, known as a solar wind, and send them hurtling out into space. It takes these winds about 40 hours to reach Earth. If the Earth is in the path of a solar wind, its magnetic fields concentrate the particles at its poles. As the particles move towards the poles and begin to concentrate in the higher latitudes, such as Iceland, they interact with various gases in the atmosphere to create the awe-inspiring light display we refer to as the Northern Lights.
It means just that – it needs to be dark. This also means that a summer trip to Iceland won’t result in the needed night time darkness. As early as May through as late as August, due to the Earth’s tilt towards the sun, some degree of sunlight persists around the clock in Iceland and prevents the necessary darkness to view Northern Lights activity. So consider a trip to Iceland in the winter – the nights are sufficiently dark to see the Lights and it’s not as cold as you’d think thanks to Iceland’s location in the Gulf Stream (trust me, I’ve been there in February and it was fantastic!).
Just like an overcast day casts only a gray light or a cloudy night masks the moon, cloudy skies will prevent you from seeing Northern Lights activity. As with any weather, this is up to Mother Nature so with a little luck there will be at least one night on your trip with clear skies to view any Northern Lights activity.
Unless these three requirements are all present, that “Northern Lights Chasing Tour” you pre-booked months ago simply can’t deliver. This is not to say you shouldn’t try once you get to Iceland! Darkness and clear skies are easy to figure out on your own by simply traveling to Iceland at the appropriate time of year and checking the weather app on your phone. Fortunately, there is also a way for us non-scientist folks to see an “Aurora forecast” by visiting the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Consider renting a car and doing some chasing on your own if the predictions look good. Or, if you really want a tour, wait to book it until you’re actually in Iceland and have an opportunity to check out the necessary forecasts.
The Northern Lights are absolutely worth chasing – just be sure to chase them knowing there’s a good chance you’ll catch them.
P.S. FUN FACT: Towards the South Pole, this same phenomenon is called the “Aurora Australis.”