The Four Seasons
What is the best time to see northern lights in Iceland?
Iceland is a great place to visit year round. In fact you should visit Iceland at least twice because Icelandic Summer and Icelandic Winter are like two very different countries. In the Summer, it is easy to travel around and visit locations in the highlands. You can stay up all night and bask in the midnight sun, no, it doesn’t get dark! But if you want to see the Northern lights, it’s not going to happen in the Summer. That heavenly display is so feint that it needs darkness to be seen. So forget your dream of midnight sun and auroras, it’s extremely unlikely. However if you come at the end of the Summer around the 15th August, you might be able to see them at the darkest part of the night. Then they are visible all the way through the Autumn and Winter until the first weeks of April when the sky gets lighter.
The full moon can affect your viewing experience. In the right place, the moon can help you get around, but a full moon throws out so much light pollution, that only very strong auroras are visible. Now this is a matter of taste, but a new moon phase will give you better Northern lights photographs (IMHO), because you can experience much weaker auroras and photograph better colours.
The equinox is when the night time is the same duration as the day time. This happens on September 23rd and March 20th. Northern light displays tend to be more powerful around this time. This is when you are more likely to see a level 8-10 aurora which can be strong enough to cast a shadow.
If you are visiting Iceland to experience this solar phenomenon, there are two factors that could affect the outcome of your trip; weather & duration.
Because Iceland is a cold hard rock in a turbulent ocean, it does tend to attract lots of clouds. It attracts big, heavy clouds and the clouds love Iceland so much, they sometimes want to hang around for the duration of your stay. Big clouds mean 2 things; 1) It will be slightly warmer and could rain or snow, 2) No Northern lights tonight! Being flexible and able to travel around could solve this issue, because you might be able to move under a different weather system and get away from the clouds. However, driving a thousand kilometres in a strange country with icy roads and winds that can push you off the road could end in a different kind of experience.
Time in Iceland
It is quite simple, the longer you are in Iceland, the better your chances of seeing something green in the sky. You would be incredibly lucky to see them on a one night stop over, I am estimating less than 15% of people will be this lucky. A long weekend in Reykjavik will give you odds approaching 50/50, as long as you have a means of getting out of the city lights. A whole week with a variety of locations will almost certainly give you some opportunities to see the Northern Lights.
From my experience, the Northern Lights are most likely to be seen from 10PM to 2AM. Some very powerful storms will produce visible auroras as early as 7PM and through to 7AM., but the most common light shows are around midnight. Most displays will last an hour or two and the activity will come and go during this time. If the lights fade but a steady green line remains, it is likely to come back with power. Sometimes a display can be as short as 2o seconds, but this is rare.
What you see with you eyes is not the same as the photos. The reason is because our eyes use rods in the darkness and rods don’t process colours (see Rods & Cones). The camera does see colour and it is collecting the information over a period of time (5-30 seconds), so the result is much more colourful (realistic) than our eyes. However, you eyes will see the dancing curtains much better than your camera and if it gets powerful enough, you will see some of the colours.
If you are on a budget, long weekend then some obvious choices would be in the Reykjavik area. There are spots within walking distance of Reykjavik City such as the lighthouse at Grotta, or the walk along the shore line past the Solfar sculpture towards Videy Island. There are plenty of evening tours leaving from most Reykjavik Hotels, so if there are good forecasts, you can hop on the bus and get out into the local nature. On a short trip you make a detour to the Blue lagoon. You can soak in the healing, blue waters on a Winter evening and if the Gods are on your side, the clouds will part giving you a heavenly experience.
If you are on a longer trip with some travel, then check out Jökusarlon Glacier Lagoon where the icebergs reflect with the aurora in the still ice lake. Kirkjufell mountain is the most photographed mountain in Iceland and is a real treat on magical Icelandic nights. In the North of Iceland, the lake Myvatn and Goðafoss waterfall are prime locations for seeing the Aurora n the Nature.