Posted: 07 November 2016

Your Guide to the Northern Lights

Hoping to see the Northern Lights during your school trip to Iceland? Well, here's your guide to this spectacular natural phenomenon.

Auroras are caused when charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere collide with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The charged particles escape through openings in the sun’s atmosphere, such as a sunspot or coronal hole.

Those escaped charged particles are blown towards the Earth by a solar wind. For the most part, they’re deflected away from the Earth by its magnetic field.

But this is weaker at the magnetic poles, and this is where they’re able to enter the atmosphere and collide with those gaseous particles.

When this phenomenon happens in the northern hemisphere, it’s called Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. In the southern hemisphere, it’s known as Aurora Australis, or the Southern Lights.

Although the Northern Lights have been spotted here in the UK, if you want a good chance of seeing them you’ll need to get as close to the magnetic north pole as possible. In Europe, this means heading to the far north of Scandinavia (Lapland), Iceland, or southern Greenland).

The Northern Lights dance across the skies above Iceland all year-round, but they’re only visible on a clear dark night, making the winter months (September to mid-April) the best time to spot them.

However, the winter months on this island in the north Atlantic can be…well, pretty unpredictable in terms of weather.

So the optimum times are usually October to November and February to March, when skies are dark and the weather is a little less wild.

In terms of the best hours to see them, this is typically from 9pm until 2am. Keep an eye on the Aurora Forecastfor more information.

In a word, no. To see the Northern Lights, of course, you first need them to be fairly active. But you also need a clear, dark night, with minimal light pollution.

How long do the Northern Lights last?This really depends. If you’re lucky enough to catch a show, it could last just 10 minutes, or go on all night!

It really depends on the strength of the solar wind – the show will last as long as the particles continue to collide with each other (and visibility remains good, obviously).

Green is the most common colour spotted, but you may see other colours too, such as red, yellow, green, blue or purple. It depends on the gases being ionized by the charged particles – at higher altitudes this tends to be oxygen, which emits a red or green colour, and at lower altitudes this may be nitrogen, which cause blue or purple hues.

The Final WordUltimately, the Northern Lights are completely unpredictable and, unfortunately, this means we can’t guarantee you’ll see them during your trip to Iceland. But, if you are lucky enough to see them, you can be certain that it’ll be an experience neither you nor your students are likely to forget in a hurry!

Of course, if you’re travelling during the winter months, we can arrange a Northern Lights tour for you, which should increase your chances of seeing the aurora (if conditions are favourable). Your guide will be an expert who follows the forecast closely and knows the best locations for spotting the aurora.

And if you want to be absolutely guaranteed of a Northern Lights experience during your trip, we can arrange a visit to the Northern Lights Centre in Reykjavik for you.

Although they don’t offer a live show, the interactive exhibits will help you learn more about the phenomenon, its history and its influence on cultures around the world. Plus, in the centre’s theatre you can catch a lovely film of some of the most spectacular aurora shows spotted in Iceland.

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