Aurora Tourism in Iceland: You Can Seek, but You May Not Find

From the outside, it may seem like the northern lights dance across Iceland’s skies each night. On Icelandair ads, planes fly across shimmering curtains in the sky. On social media, travelers gaze at the green bands above them. The lights are even on some recycling bins in Reykjavík, the capital: “Keep Iceland Clean.”

In the past decade or so, an aurora borealis industrial complex has boomed in Iceland. Many rent a car and go out on their own, but there are northern lights big bus tours and northern lights minibus tours and northern lights Super Jeep tours. There are private guides and boat cruises. There’s an observatory base camp. There’s even a museum.

But the lights can be elusive.

“Tourists sometimes expect, like, ‘At what time do you turn them on?’” said Björn Saevar Einarsson, a forecaster at Iceland’s meteorological office, chuckling. “Like we have a switch in the back room.”

This year, the letdowns are especially intense.

The northern lights, which are also called the aurora borealis, are most visible when there are solar flares, which are big eruptions on the sun that send electronically charged particles toward Earth. This year, the sun is approaching the peak of its 11-year cycle of activity, which some assume means that the displays could peak, too.

But the enhanced solar activity doesn’t necessarily mean the northern lights will be brighter or more frequent, scientists wearily explain. Instead, they mostly mean that the lights can be seen farther south than usual: In recent months, they have been visible in Arizona, Missouri and southern England.

That doesn’t mean much for Iceland.

In fact, Icelanders and scientists said, this winter is nothing special. Sometimes, the lights are there. Sometimes, they aren’t. Just like always.

But nothing special, with the northern lights, is still very special. And so tourists keep coming.

Last month, I joined the fray. For four nights, I looked for telltale sky shimmers in and around Reykjavík.

I booked my tickets riding high — this was the best year yet, right? But as I learned more, and as my flight neared, my hopes ebbed. Scientists and tour leaders gently told me that the skies were cloudy and the solar activity seemed quiet.

“Just to let you know the forecast doesn’t look too good” Inga Dís Richter, the chief commercial officer at Icelandia, a tourism agency, wrote in an email two days before I planned to take a minibus trip with Reykjavik Excursions, one of its tour operators.

“But,” she added, “this can change.”

To find the lights, guides and travelers often rely on aurora forecasts, which overlay cloud cover and solar activity. They check them constantly, like a bride with an outdoor wedding in mid-April.

Some of the forecasts are free, like the aurora forecast run by Iceland’s meteorological office or Iceland at Night, which includes space weather. (Some are not — Aurora Forecast, which costs $12.99 a year, sends alerts.) Many people also turn to Facebook pages, where enthusiasts hungrily swap sightings.

Luck, though, is everything.

“There’s only one thing less predictable with the northern lights, and that’s the Arctic weather,” said John Mason, a global expert on the northern lights. “An aurora forecast is barely worth the paper that it’s written on.”

The guides work hard to explain the science, and set expectations. Most companies offer a free rebooking option if the lights do not show.

On my first night of aurora stalking, despite Ms. Richter’s warnings, I joined an expectant group on the Reykjavík Excursions minibus. For $88, I got a seat on the 19-person bus, which left the city’s central bus station at 9:30 p.m.

Over the next three to four hours, we would drive through the Icelandic night together. I’d either see something astonishing with these strangers — the sky, banded with light — or shiver with them shoulder-to-shoulder, awkward in the cold.

As we pulled onto the road, Gudjon Gunnarsson, the guide, set the mood early. “We are going hunting for the lights,” he said, emphasizing the word “hunting,” “similar to going out fishing in a lake.”

He drove for about 45 minutes, letting Reykjavík’s glow fade behind us. The city has about 140,000 people, and no real skyscrapers, so there’s limited light pollution. Although the northern lights can appear over the city, it’s best to see them in total darkness.

Then he paused and consulted with another guide.

“It is too cloudy here,” he told his flock. “So we will keep driving.”

But as we kept driving, clouds turned to a dense fog, so thick that the moon all but disappeared.

Mr. Gunnarsson turned off the main highway about an hour after we left Reykjavík. He parked in a parking lot. Or maybe it was a side street? The darkness was so deep that I could only make out the moonlight on the ocean, and only then after my eyes adjusted.

We disembarked and stood dutifully beside him, staring up at the sky. Then, one woman pointed toward Reykjavík. Were those the lights? (No. That was light pollution.)

Christof Reinhard, 65, who owns a medical laser company and was visiting with his family from Paris, mused that our search was a little bit like a safari. Sure, the desert is amazing, but it’s much better with lions. Or, maybe, was this more like a whale watch?

“Instead of a boat,” he said, “you have a bus.”

Mr. Gunnarsson watched the group stomp their feet and bend into the wind. Fifteen minutes. Then, half an hour. The clouds hung thick above. “There’s nothing happening here, as you can see,” he finally said to relieved chuckles. “It’s one of those nights where you just have to give up.”

Tourists can get mad, Mr. Gunnarsson and other guides said. It’s rare, but it does happen.

“It’s the trip that has our worst reviews,” said Eric Larimer, the digital marketing manager for Gray Line Iceland, a day tour and airport transport company.

For some, the joy is in the search, even if there is no find. A few focus on astronomy, often opting to stay at Hotel Rangá, which is just off the main ring road (Route 1) near Iceland’s south coast.

The hotel looks unassuming — low-slung and wooden — but it’s one of the most famous in Iceland. (The Kardashians stayed there. So did the Real Housewives of Orange County.) A standard room costs more than $300, depending on the season.

But Rangá doesn’t just cater to celebrities. It also draws astronomy buffs, enticed by its “aurora wake-up call” service and its observatory, which has state-of-the-art telescopes.

“One thing is to sell them,” said Fridrik Pálsson, the hotel’s owner, speaking of the northern lights. “Another thing is to deliver them.”

About 20 years ago, before the northern lights industry took off, he delegated the night security guard to monitor the sky. The guard pokes his head out every few minutes to look for the telltale flicker. If he sees the lights, he alerts the guests.

The service aims to address one of the main issues with hunting for the northern lights: They are usually only visible on winter nights, when it is very cold, very windy and very late.

“To be a good northern lights observer, you need the constitution of an insomniac polar bear,” Dr. Mason said.

My room phone, alas, stayed silent. But I did dream about the lights — great Wonka colors swirling, strangely, behind the Chrysler Building.

Mr. Pálsson built the observatory, too. Even if the lights didn’t show up, he figured, the stars are still magnificent — and, for city dwellers, also rare. The hotel contracts astronomers to work the telescopes and explain the stars to guests.On my second night in Iceland, as twilight slipped below happy-hour skies, I crunched across the snow to the observatory with Saevar Helgi Bragason, an Icelandic science communicator who leads the astronomy program.

He bent into a toddler-size telescope, focusing it on the moon’s craters. They looked clearer than the hotel, just a short walk away. It was too early for the lights, he said. And that evening seemed too cloudy (on Earth) and too quiet (on the sun).

Mr. Bragason joked that the lights can get in his way — they create a mist over the stars he really wants to see. But tourists often come specifically to see them. And sometimes, he said, as they wait impatiently, they can miss the real wonder.

“You’re left with these beautiful skies above you,” he said. “Basically, literally, another universe opens up.”

Hotel Rangá was a pioneer in Iceland’s northern lights tourism industry: About two decades ago, people came to Iceland for the long summer days, and left as daylight slipped farther south.

“I found it rather stupid in the beginning,” admitted Mr. Pálsson, the owner of Rangá, speaking of northern lights tourism.

But spreading tourism throughout the year made sense. Partly, that was an environmental concern. The tourists would crowd the country’s extraordinary natural sites over just a few months. It was also economic. When the visitors left Iceland, tourism jobs would ebb with the sunlight.

So the northern lights, which are reliably visible from September to March, became the backbone of the country’s winter branding, said Sveinn Birkir Björnsson, the marketing and communications director at Business Iceland, which promotes the country.

“To be able to sell this product of cold and darkness, you have to have something to offer,” he said.

Now, even though June, July and August are the busiest months, tourism has evened out over the seasons. In 2023, there were about 1.1 million international visitors to Iceland during the aurora months, based on departures from Keflavík Airport, according to data from Iceland’s tourist board. From April to August, there were about 1.1 million, too.

About a decade earlier, when tourism overall to Iceland was lower, there were about 336,000 departures from the main airport in colder months, and about 446,000 in the spring and summer.

The winter travelers are drawn by the lights — and the hot springs, glaciers and icy waterfalls. It’s also cheaper than the summer season.

Some try to visit volcanoes, but the country recently warned tourists to avoid the lava flows — Iceland is living in an unusually active period of seismic activity. In January, lava flowed into a small town and last week a volcano erupted with just 40 minutes’ notice near the Blue Lagoon thermal springs, one of the country’s biggest attractions.

Near midnight on my last night, a Sunday, I drove to the Grótta Lighthouse, a popular spot on the outskirts of Reykjavík.

A few die-hard experts had warned me off — many tourists go there because it’s darker than most of Reykjavík, but then don’t think to turn off their headlights. It was also raining, greatly diminishing my chances of seeing the lights.

But I only had three hours before I had to leave to make my predawn flight. I felt a little desperate, a little dazed. I parked, and approached two people who were sitting in the rain on a wet wall, looking at the water in the darkness. I climbed over seaweed, and introduced myself. What would it mean to them, I asked, if the lights suddenly appeared?

“It’d be a little bit like the cherry on top,” said Catherine Norburn, 29, who was visiting from England.

She and her husband were set to fly out the next morning. They had not yet seen the lights.

“We don’t have high hopes,” said her husband, Reece Norburn, 29, “but it’s now or never.”

We didn’t see the lights. And I didn’t see them later, even after pulling off the highway halfway between Reykjavík and the airport at 3:30 a.m., half convinced by a shimmery cloud.

But I did spend more time looking up at the sky. And it’s a marvel.

In New York City, where I live, the night sky blooms orange-mauve. In Iceland, the nighttime darkness is just that — darkness. Clouds roll, breaking the deep blue. Stars actually shine. Northern lights or no northern lights, it was still cosmically beautiful.

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