The Northern Lights
For many visitors Iceland means literally one thing: the Northern Lights.
This spectacular natural phenomenon occurs most frequently between the dark winter months of September and April.
This wonderful fireworks display in the sky was for centuries believed to be the work of spirits and mystical beings.
Today the reason behind the Aurora Borealis, as the Northern Lights are officially called, is more science-based.
Particles of energy are hurled into space from the Sun following solar flares or explosions. These particles are then captured by the earth’s magnetic northern and southern poles. A chemical reaction between the particles and magnetic fields causes the Aurora to put on magnificent flashes of bright and dazzling lights. From neon-green to sparkling pink as well as blue and red, there is nothing quite like seeing these wonderful events brighten up the night sky.
The Aurora can be fickle, and may appear at a moment’s notice, lighting up the sky, only to disappear completely in the blink of an eye.
A cloudless and dark night provides best conditions in which to catch the Lights and tours usually take visitors either out to sea on boat tours or on buses inland away from Reykjavik and other towns so as to avoid light pollution blocking out the best possible views.
This is not to say, however, that the Lights cannot be seen from central Reykjavik. Word will quickly spread amongst tourists and locals in the city when they are putting on a good show, and it is often common to see them easily on Laugavegur (the main shopping street) or by the Harpa Concert Hall in the city’s harbour.
Tour companies do their best to inform visitors in as much time as possible if excursions are cancelled, usually due to cloud cover or bad weather. Hotels, guest houses and even some tourist information stores will produce signs saying: “Northern Lights Tours Cancelled Tonight’.
Although it is possible to predict the level of solar activity (check out www.vedur.is for more information), the Aurora are a naturally occurring phenomenon, and as such can never be 100% guaranteed, and unfortunately some visitors fail to see them, even on multiple trips.
As with whale watching, many companies do offer a free trip if nothing is seen on the first excursion.
But failure to see this wonderful event means only one thing: another reason to come back and visit Iceland!