Guide to Finding the Northern Lights in Iceland
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are a beautiful display of dancing multi-coloured lights. Seeing this spectacular natural phenomenon is on nearly everyone's bucket list. When planning your trip to Iceland, think of seeing the Northern Lights as a plus on your trip and not the sole purpose of your trip. They can be fairly unpredictable. There are tours available to go chase the Northern Lights. You could always drive on your own like we did.
Here's a list of tips that we have tried and tested to find the Northern Lights in Iceland. You can read about how to photograph them here next.
Finding the Northern Lights in Iceland
There's three things you need for seeing the Northern Lights: clear, dark skies & KP index of 3 and up. You will need for all the factors to line up & with a little bit of luck to see the Northern Lights, so naturally the longer your trip is in Iceland the higher the chances you will have to see them. Staying at least 7 days will maximize your chances for all the factors to line up for the ideal conditions to see the Northern Lights. We stays in Iceland for 14 days and we saw them 10 out of the 4 days. We were really lucky as we met other tourists who spent 4-5 days there and did not see them at all.
1. Clear Skies
You can still see them on a partly clear night. Ideally you could see them in their full glory on a cloudless clear night. The weather can be unpredictable in Iceland in winter so keep checking the weather forecast. There is more precipitation in January & February, which makes November & December the better time of year for clear skies. We also found the weather to be colder on clear nights, so bundle up!
2. Dark Skies
You can see them in the city if they are very strong but you would have a much better chance away from the light pollution. Winter would be the better time to see them as the nights are much longer. Although you can see the Northern lights anytime of night, people have found that there is a better chance in between 11pm to 2am.
3. KP Index
The Northern Lights are caused by the sun's electrically charged particles hitting our atmosphere. The KP index measures this activity. It is a scale of geomagnetic activity from 0 to 9. As long as it is higher than 3 in Iceland, there's a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights with clear skies. Different geographic locations require a different KP index for a chance of seeing the Northern lights.
The website we found a bit more useful than the app we had downloaded because it shows you the KP index forecast for the next 72 hours & in real time. It also shows you the cloud coverage over the map of Iceland. The green areas are showing cloud coverage & white areas are where you would find clear skies.
The app tells you the KP index from your location & your chances of seeing it. Sadly our app is telling us our KP index of 2.33 with a 0 chance of seeing it in our current location (Sint Maarten). Push notification is available on the app and a good reminder of tonight's conditions!
What No One Ever Tells You
The most important tip that we found most articles never mention is that you may not know what you're looking at. That sounds like such a silly thing, you would think you would know them when you see them but you might not! This is because your eyes may be adjusted for light from your cell phone or tablet screen. Give your eyes a chance to adjust to complete darkness & don't use your cell phone (or switch to low brightness) or flashlight. When it doubt, take a photo! The camera is better adjusted to capture the phenomenon with the right settings so it will look more pronounced in a photo.
Plan your trip to see the destination. Iceland is such a scenic country with a lot more to offer such as the Golden Circle, waterfalls, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, diving, glacier walk, ice climbing & ice caves. When you do see the Aurora, it will be the cherry on top.
When you do see them, here's how to photography the beautiful Aurora Borealis!