The Northern Lights in Iceland

What are the Northern Lights?
The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as 'Aurora borealis' in the north and 'Aurora australis' in the south.
Auroral displays appear in many colors although pale green and pink are the most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been seen. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie spiritual glow.

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What causes the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora. The connection between the Northern Lights and sunspot activity has been suspected since about 1880.

Thanks to research conducted since the 1950's, we now know that electrons and protons from the sun are blown towards the earth on the 'solar wind'. The temperature above the surfaceof the sun is millions of degrees Celsius. At this temperature, collisions between gas molecules are frequent and explosive. Free electrons and protons are thrown from the sun's atmosphere by the rotation of the sun and escape through holes in the magnetic field. Blown towards the earth by the solar wind, the charged particles are largely deflected by the earth's magnetic field. However, the earth's magnetic field is weaker at either pole and therefore some particles enter the earth's atmosphere and collide with gas particles. These collisions emit light that we perceive as the dancing lights of the north (and the south).  The lights of the Aurora generally extend from 80 kilometers (50 miles) to as high as 640 kilometers (400 miles) above the earth's surface.

Where and when is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
Areas that are not subject to 'light pollution' are the best places to watch for the lights, although you can see them in the center of Reykjavik (see the photo to the right). Areas in the Icelandic countryside tend to be best. Researchers have also discovered that auroral activity is cyclic, peaking roughly every 11 years. The last peak period started in 2013, with frequent Northern Lights displays likely for another two or three years after that. Winter in the north is generally a good season to view the lights. The long periods of darkness and the frequency of clear nights provide many good opportunities to watch the auroral displays. Usually the best time of night (on clear nights) to watch for auroral displays in Iceland is between 9pm to 1am. In order to see Northern Lights we need darkness and clear sky. The best time to see Aurora Borealis in Iceland is from September to Mid April.
The phases of the moon don't affect aurora activity, but the moonlight can reduce the intensity of the displays. It is often mentioned that full moon should be avoided due to higher light concentration; however it is one of the most magical experiences to see the full moon together with the northern lights dancing across the sky. During a new moon the sky is slightly darker, but it is very much a matter of personal opinion, which of these sightings is the best.


Myths and Legends related to the Northern Lights:

  • In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis (or the northern lights), named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, by Pierre Gassendi in 1621.
  • The Cree call this phenomenon the "Dance of the Spirits".
  • In Europe, in the middle ages, the auroras were commonly believed a sign from God.
  • Some Northern American Inuit call the aurora ‘aqsarniit’ (literally ‘football players’) because they believe that the lights are ancestral spirits kicking around the head of a walrus.
  • The Old Norse explanation was that the strange, shimmering green lights were old maids dancing in the heavens.
  • Vikings believed the glowing lights were reflections from the shields of the Valkyries, maidens who transported fallen warriors to Valhalla.
  • Scandinavian fisherman called the sightings Herring Flash as they saw them as a sign of rich catches, believing them to be caused by light reflecting off vast shoals of lively herring.
  • Modern day myths exist too - the Japanese believe that babies conceived under the northern lights will become intellectuals.

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