The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, or norðrljós in Old Norse, are created by the solar wind (and the charged particles that come with it) interacting with the Earth’s magnetosphere. This is why they are mainly seen within the Arctic Circle, because they get trapped in the magnetic field and circle around the poles, before colliding with our atmosphere and causing a glow.
The solar winds occur all year round, with periods of higher and lower activity, so the Aurora are occurring all year round as well, but they are easily hidden from view by other lights.
This is why you should normally head out of cities for the best view, due to the light pollution. It is also the reason why you will struggle to see them in summer, especially June and July.
Countries that are in the correct places to see the Auroras, like Iceland, are normally also in the right place for a phenomenon known as Midnight Sun. This is when the sun barely goes below the horizon, providing 24-hour daylight.
Even on the shortest day, the sun does set, but there is a gorgeous glow of light that just barely fades for a few hours in the dead of night. The light looks like a constant sunset, providing a golden wash to the scenery, often the best lighting for amazing photography. However, this constant light does mean that it is impossible to see the Northern Lights as it is too bright to see them just like you cannot see the stars during the day.
So no, you cannot see the northern lights in the middle of summer.
Okay, so June and July are ruled out, what about the rest of summer? In April, May, and August, there is still a lot of daylight and still very little darkness. There have been sightings of the Northern Lights during those months, but only during periods of intense solar activity. These are never guaranteed and can change within a day, so we don’t recommend booking a trip in these months just for the chance.
Instead, we recommend going for all the other things that Iceland has to offer. In summer, we’d say go for the midnight sun instead!
What about late August, September, and early October? The sky may be dark enough to see the lights, and there is enough darkness during those months. However, the problem then comes from cloud cover instead.
When there are clouds, it obscures the entire sky, including the Aurora. And during autumn, there is often a decent amount of cloud cover. However, if you are well-prepared or go with a really good tour group, you may be able to find places with less cover.
So, with all those considerations, going to Iceland between November and March gives you the best chance to catch sight of the beautiful lights.
It’s not because winter miraculously turns on the lights, or because it has to be cold for the lights to be visible. Also, you can still see them on a full moon, they may just be a bit fainter.
Now it’s dark and cloudless and you’re in Iceland. How can you increase your chances of seeing a really good display of the Lights?
Admittedly, there is nothing you can do to 100% guarantee it, especially if you only have one night to see them. We still don’t have the ability to 100% forecast our own weather, never mind solar weather, so we cannot definitely predict it.
However, there are some things that you can do to increase your chances.
- Be there for at least a week.
The aurora tends to appear in cycles, where it is active for two days and then quiet for four. If you’re here for at least a week, you should catch at least one end of the cycle.
- Look north
The Northern Lights tend to appear from the north, even though you’re already very north. So if you look carefully in the right direction, you should catch a glimpse, even if it’s faint.
- Check the forecast
Don’t pack your bags if it says there’s little chance but use it to increase the chances on where and when is best. You can also download an app to provide alerts if there is a higher chance where you currently are. Here are some good ones:
With that, you should be well equipped, so happy hunting! If you’re looking for more advice, read some of our other blogs on how to best chase the aurora.