The lengthy darkness of Icelandic winters has some advantages. More or less from September to April. The nights grow dark and long enough for enjoying the magnificent aurora borealis. Named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora. And the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas. Commonly referred to as the northern lights.
The northern lights are due to electrically charged particles emitted by the sun. These particles are mostly warded off by the Earth’s magnetic field. It is weaker nearer the poles. Here the solar particles are more likely to penetrate the field and collide with gaseous particles in our atmosphere. The energy released through these collisions yields a soft, wondrous luminosity that varies in colour.
On clear winter nights, sightseeing trips are organised around this spectacular – though fickle – natural phenomenon. The ideal sites for observation vary, not least according to weather. But excursion leaders are skilled in seeking out locations. Where conditions are best for seeing the lights on any given night.
There will never be guarantees of seeing the aurora borealis. A tourist’s chances can be greatly improved by travelling away from the light-pollution of towns, at least while on excursion. Also, it often amazes foreign visitors how strongly cloud cover and precipitation can differ in Iceland just by driving to the other side of a mountain range. Rural places of accommodation are normally not booked heavily during the winter months, so that then it is usually feasible to move on short notice to a different part of the island depending on the weather. Some small-town hotels with 24-hour desk services also offer to wake guests who request to find out whenever the lights make a show.
Sometimes the northern lights become visible even in heavily populated areas, and on black, frosty nights the news may spread quickly among locals urging each other to go out for a look. The Icelandic Met Office provides a daily northern lights forecast which will improve a visitor’s chances of observing this splendid natural phenomenon.