How to Catch the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in Iceland

The Aurora Borealis – Iceland

How to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?

We went to Iceland without much expectations of seeing the northern lights. In particular, this year, 2017, is predicted to be part of a weak solar cycle called the grand solar minimum. Still, we were hopeful. This is what we did:

  1. Spend 12 nights in Iceland. The logic being: if we can’t spot the aurora in 12 nights, then it is not meant to be. But c’mon…it can’t be that bad, right? Then again, I had a friend who were there 2 weeks before us and spent 10 nights without seeing anything. Well…
  2. Visit Iceland on a new moon. We want as little light as possible. I was told that to see the lights you need to train yourselves for them. They will appear as a cloud..very faint at first. Use your camera to take a picture, to be certain. If it is the aurora, your camera can pick it up much better than the naked eye.
  3. Booked places to stay in remote areas, far away from the city lights. Light pollution is the greatest nemesis to seeing the northern lights.
  4. Our party of 8 actually appointed an ‘official’ northern light spotter. Meaning she is supposed to be in charged of checking for cloud covers, the KP index and so forth. As it turns out we have a few ‘aurora criers” (akin to the ancient town criers), yours truly included, who would alert the rest should the elusive aurora presents itself.
  5. And..not forgetting the all important DLSR camera to capture the images for the memories (and in this age, more likely for bragging rights).
  6. And if all else fails, for the last night, we booked a place near Reykjavik, so that we can always surrender to the aurora tour companies operating out of the capital, who almost guarantee sightings (weather permitting), and would chase after the aurora while you just sit back and relax.

Boy, were we armed to the teeth!

The Northern Lights as seen at the Grotta Lighhouse

The Northern Lights as seen at the Grotta Lighthouse

The final tally? We saw the northern lights 8 out of the 12 nights we were there. Phew! We couldn’t see it on other nights due to the heavy cloud cover over the entire Iceland.

So, how can you see the northern lights while in Iceland?

  1. The thing is: the lights are almost always there in Iceland, it being so far north. 2 things will affect your view of the auroras: light pollution and clouds. So, that was why we decided to visit Iceland in the middle of winter – we had an average of only 6 hours of daylight everyday. But this website is very helpful: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/  . It tells you where in the Iceland has clear skies. That’s where you need to be to view  the aurora.
  2. There are several websites that list the KP index forecast, but I find this one particularly useful: http://www.metcheck.com/WEATHER/aurora_forecasts.asp.
  3. Download this app if you have an android phone: “Aurora Alerts Northern Lights” (download from Google Playstore: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.jrustonapps.myauroraforecast&hl=en)
  4. Check the KP index in point 2 above on the night itself. If it says KP 3, you are good to go. But the index also changes often, so check often. If it says it is a KP 3 at 12 midnight, then get ready at 11.30pm. At first, it will appear faintly and just when you thought that it is over, the northern lights will perform in all its glory..but sometimes only for a few minutes. And then it might just wane or completely disappear. But be patient, for within an hour, it might just light up again, this time with much greater intensity.
  5. Be willing to travel to chase after the lights. On one of the evenings, we saw from the vedur.is website that there was going to be heavy cloud cover where we were staying – at the Thingvellir national park. However, it showed that Reykjavik was going to be a clear night. So we drove 1 hour to the Grotta Lighthouse and we were rewarded with fantastic show.
  6. The KP index may not be synonymous with the level of intensity of the northern lights. Sometimes, a KP 4 index may have a better showing than a KP 5 prediction. On 2 nights even when the KP forecast was less than 2, the northern lights came on brilliantly.

Where in Iceland can I see the northern lights? 

The Aurora as seen along the road to Keflavik.

The Aurora as seen along the road to Keflavik.

Well, basically, anywhere. But be sure to look north. That said, on a good night, it will be all over the sky. In fact, you won’t know where to look – cos the lights would be ‘dancing’ all over.

During our trip, we saw the aurora at the following places:

  1. Akureyri: we rented via airbnb this place: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/8652262 This was a perfect place because it was away from the city, and it was sitting at the edge of the cluster of houses there and the bedrooms were all facing north.
  2. Stafafell Cottages. These pair of cottages were located at Stafafell, eastern Iceland. This was my favourite place because it was secluded and dark and you could see the lights from the bedroom. Or, just hop out of the house and enjoy the show. You have the whole place to yourself. The above photo was taken at Stafafell cottages.
  3. Vik. the cottage we rented at Vik was less ideal, for there were street lights all around. So,we drove to the black sand beach, just 10 minutes away. And what a show we saw. The second night, it was raining and snowing in Vik. Determined to see the lights, for the KP forecast was 4, we drove 20 minutes out of town to the carpark of Sólheimasandur (the place where the famous DC 3 plane wreck is found). It was clear sky there and we too saw the aurora there – though the show could have been better, given it was a KP 4 – then again, by then we have gotten greedy and smug.
  4. Reykjavik – at the Grotta lighthouse. We did see a good show there, but we had to jostle for space as there were 8 busloads of people there too. All the aurora-chasing tour companies went there. Enroute back to the Thingvellier National Park, where we were staying, we stopped by the side of  the road for there was a fantastic display again, after the initial showing waned at the lighthouse.
  5. Thingvellir National Park: specifically this house, https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11351667
  6. Along the highway to Keflavik – our last night. We saw the northern lights coming on strong and we just parked by the side of the road and watched the fantastic display.

So, for all those going to Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis, remember this:
a) choose a dark place,
b) be willing to go to a place with clear skies (check the vedur.is website), and
c) dress warm.
d) if all else fail, sign up with a aurora tour company (google “Aurora tour reykjavik”) – plenty of companies there – most of them offering a free replacement tour if you didn’t sight any northern lights on your first outing with them.
e) and….visit Iceland during months with longer nights, between October and March. By the way, most of the time we saw the lights between 9pm and 2am, with 12 midnight being the median. Check the metcheck.com website for predicted timing. Since Iceland uses the GMT, the timing listed on that website is applicable for Iceland.

ALL THE BEST!