What Are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights and Aurora Borealis are one and the same — most people call them Northern Lights, while the scientific name is Aurora Borealis. The northern lights happen when charged particles from the sun enter the atmosphere and collide with gas atoms in Earth's atmosphere. Although it is possible to witness rare violet or red hues, the most commonly observed color of the Northern Lights is green. While this process happens throughout the year, the Northern Lights can only be seen when the sky is dark and free from clouds.
Best Time To View The Northern Lights In Iceland
Like an over-indulged rock star, Iceland’s Northern Lights come out when they feel like it. Seeing them takes more than just good timing and luck. That said, cruising Iceland during the right time of year increases your odds. Clear, dark skies, and high solar activity are the perfect combo for these finnicky dancers. The best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is between late-August and the beginning of April, as the sky needs to be dark, and Iceland is much too bright in spring and summer.
If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of these magnificent lights during your Alaska cruise, your best chance is in September, especially mid-month when the aurora is more active around the autumn equinox.
Best Time Of Day
Now that you know the best time of year to see the Northern Lights, think of the best time of day. Aim for the coldest, darkest part of the night. Cloud coverage diminishes your chances, so try to avoid the coast and go inland. Sightings occur late in the night, between 6:00 pm and 4:00 am, with the best time after 10:00 pm.
There are phone apps and email newsletters with the KP-index that will tell you when the aurora forecast is high and to be on the lookout. If you’re in Reykjavik overnight, some hotels may offer a Northern Lights wake-up call.
Solar Activity And Other Factors
Most people don’t think about what’s going on on the earth’s nearest star, but if you want to maximize your chances of seeing the aurora, pay attention to the fiery ball in the sky. Solar flares create energy, and that means more Northern Lights activity.
Two factors are important to consider for those take-your-breath-away Iceland Northern Lights display. The equinox and solar cycles.
The equinox: In general, solar activity is highest during equinox months of September and March, as close to the equinox (around the 21st of the month) as possible. Activity is still high in other winter months, but if you’re planning a Northern Europe cruise, Alaskan cruise, or Iceland Northern Lights tour, September is best.
Solar cycle: Sunspot activity is on an 11-year cycle and influences your chances of seeing the lights. The Northern Lights become more active around Solar Maximum, a regular period of more sun activity. According to the National Weather Service, peak sunspot activity is expected in 2025. Solar cycle 25 started in December 2021, and solar activity is expected to increase with the sun at its most active in 2024 to 2026.
In short, the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland on a cruise is late August and September, any year between 2021 and 2026.