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Northern Lights

Hello!

My husband and I will be traveling to Iceland in the early part of April. We hope to see the Northern Lights while we are there. We are wondering if we should spend the extra money to book a tour to see them? Or if it's possible to locate/see them on our own? If anyone has any tips and/or advice, we would greatly appreciate hearing what you have to share!

Posted by Maggie
TN, USA
1378 posts

Others who have more experience will likely provide more solid advice, but I thought I would share our experience.

We took a National Geographic Expedition to Iceland and Greenland late last summer (it was fabulous).

The only time we "really" saw the Northern Lights was when we looked out the airplane window about 20 minutes or so before landing on our initial arrival in Iceland. HUGE moving lights of dark red and bright yellow. I did not know they came in those colors...who knew? I Googled when I got back home just to verify, and sure enough, that is what I saw. It was totally not at all like a sunrise or sunset...totally different.....more active, larger and like something I had never seen before (because I had not :)

So you could get weirdly lucky, as we did.

On the actual expedition itself, the call came at something like 1:30 in the morning that a very faint spotting of the Lights was viewable (that was off the coast in Western Greenland). We got up, geared up, but it really was not worth getting up for.....barely anything at all to see, and as the call warned it was a very, very faint sighting.

Will you be staying at hotels that can give you a call if the Lights are spotted in the middle of the night?

Posted by David
Seattle, WA, USA
2706 posts

To see the northern lights, you only need some basics:

  • It needs to be dark. Very dark. So, away from light pollution (any lights on the ground nearby or in the distance). Getting far away from any town is best. Long nights are best, and far north in the winter helps (= long nights). Be up late at night when it's darkest. Dress warmly, as you will probably be out in the cold for hours.
  • There needs to be auroral activity - solar wind - which is impossible to predict (it can be forecast on very short notice, like within a couple days, when the sun puts out more juice than normal). This is pretty much a crap-shoot, unless you can drop your life and fly to somewhere in the far north on very short notice - so not practical for tourists.
  • The sky needs to be clear. Any clouds mean no view of anything in the sky. Something to consider when visiting northern places in the winter - in winter time, it's often cloudy in these places.
  • There is absolutely nothing special about Iceland, or anyplace else for that matter, that makes it "the place" to watch the aurora (other than major marketing efforts). Iceland is about as good (or as bad) as anyplace else on earth at roughly the same latitude - plenty of places in Alaska, northern Canada, most of Scandinavia are equivalent.
  • You need to be either patient (maybe very patient - ie prepared to wait days or weeks), or you need to be very lucky. A short visit (to anyplace) with the expectation of seeing a good aurora display on your one or two nights there is a recipe for disappointment.

If the conditions are poor, you're not going to see anything special in the sky even if you go to the north pole.
If the conditions are great, you can see the aurora from your back yard.

I've spent many months (including winter months) in Alaska (including some pretty remote places). I did see some minor aurora activity there a few times (also spent many hours staring at the cold dark sky). It was interesting, but probably not terribly impressive to most people.

The most spectacular aurora I ever saw, with vivid, intense, wild shifting colors filling the sky for hours, was when I was in Detroit, Michigan. That aurora was a doozie - it was visible as far south as Mexico City. I would not suggest anyone travel to Detroit (or Mexico City) for a few days with hopes to see the sky show.

Mostly it requires being in the right place and then getting lucky.

I think there are a LOT of deceptive travel businesses running "aurora tours" that leave visitors disappointed. If you want to visit Iceland to see that country, great, go do it. But don't count on seeing the aurora unless you're prepared to be there a while. Considering how expensive Iceland is, if I primarily wanted to see a great aurora display, I'd go to someplace with less of a marketing machine in place - say, Whitehorse (Yukon) or Yellowknife (Northwest Territories) or Anchorage/Fairbanks/Nome (Alaska) - and plan to stay for a week or two in the mid winter. You will still need some luck even there under the best conditions. Bring warm clothes, patience and some reading material.

No disrespect intended towards Iceland or their very effective tourism industry, or anyone who has gotten lucky there.

Posted by Geor
Seattle, Wa, USA
423 posts

Hi cjmattas:

I visited Iceland for about one week in early April 2016. One day I booked a tour to see whales, and indeed saw some whales. Back at the hotel I met some folks who, earlier in the day, said they were going on a Northern Lights tour. They did not see any such thing with their unassisted vision. They mentioned something about looking through an electronic device to see what was described as being the lights. Not sure what they saw, but as has been posted it is the luck of the draw if you see the lights on any given day.

Posted by Chani
Tel Aviv
10872 posts

Additional anecdotal information - friends of mine spent a week in Lapland 3 weeks ago - they didn't even see stars, it was cloudy the whole time.

Posted by Laura B
San Francisco
3571 posts

And ... My daughter spent an entire academic year as an exchange student in northern Finland (near the Arctic Circle) and she only told me about seeing Northern lights once.
EDIT: around New Year's

Posted by Nigel
Northamptonshire, England
18884 posts

and congratulations on being the first post in the newest Forum here.....

Posted by cjmattas OP
7 posts

Thanks everyone for all your input - We really appreciate it! It sounds like it's luck of the draw! Thankfully, we didn't book our trip around wanting to see that phenomenon - We were just hoping it would be a nice little bonus! I guess we will see what happens! :) Thank you again!

Posted by Frank II
Freedonia
6806 posts

Every day, a report is produced by the Iceland government predicting the chance of Northern Lights and the weather report. (If it's cloudy you won't see anything..)

April is late in the season for seeing them. Tours are available if the companies think you have a chance of seeing them. They will also decide the best place to see them. If they go and you don't see anything, they usually let you go another night for free.

These can be booked through your hotel the day you want to go since they won't know the odds weeks in advance.

Posted by jaimeelsabio
Maryland
1164 posts

We were there in late April 2013 and didn’t see them. It’s hit or miss whether you see them or not.

Posted by jean.h3131
275 posts

Ok we've rented a car for mid-November and plan to drive out of town to check the lights but if the roads are not good would you suggest booking a tour and if so A. bus tour or B. boat tour?
Thanks,
Jean

Posted by mreynolds
Boston, MA
1545 posts

What David said ; however think your odds are a little better than he is making it sound.
The main issue is how many hours each night are you willing to spend waiting??? ; are you willing to drive 3 hours in another direction because it looks like it will have clear skies on that side of the island?
When will you sleep if you are out looking for the lights from 11 PM to 3 AM?

If you have a good weather app that can predict cloud coverage, as well as an Aurora activity app (gives KP readings) plus a rental car and Ok driving on the roads in early April in the dark on short rest than you could do whatever a tour group could on your own.
They have no magic formula.
Of course the tour makes things easier on you by doing the planning and driving.

As far as boat vs. bus ; Not much difference but I would say a bus has better odds just cause it can travel further / faster. Clouds are the main enemy a bus may be able to drive away from them easier than a boat.