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Does Iceland Get Polar Nights?

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

Polar nights and the Midnight Sun are two phenomena that most people have heard of but never actually experienced themselves. They both evoke images of strange and wild places at the very edges of the world. Magical icy lands where nature and the elements reign and humans must tread lightly. Iceland truly is a place of extremes with its contrasting elements of fire and ice in such plain evidence. Volcanoes and glaciers create spectacular and timeless landscapes that are incredible to discover.

But does Iceland experience Polar Nights? How many hours of daylight (if any!) can you expect in the depths of mid-winter? And does the sun really shine for 24 hours on the summer solstice? In this article, we explore all of these questions. We will also look at what it is like to holiday in Iceland in the darker winter months.


All about Polar Nights

So what exactly are Polar Nights? Well, polar nights only actually occur at the North Pole and the South Pole. On a Polar Night, the curve of the earth is such that the sun never actually rises above the horizon. So the sky might brighten a little before darkening again. But the sun never actually peeps into view. This happens at opposite sides of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Although Iceland is very close to the polar circle it is just far enough away for the sun to rise. It does so for a few hours a day even on the day of the winter solstice. So even though Iceland has very short days in winter it does not get full polar nights.


How many hours of darkness does Iceland experience in winter?

As we said Iceland never gets a full Polar Night. However, it does get some very long nights around the winter solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice takes place on December 22nd. This is the shortest day of the year with around 4-5 hours of low-level daylight. On the very shortest days, the sun won’t rise until after 11 am in the morning. The sun then sets again soon after 3 pm. Even the daylight hours can feel pretty murky depending on the weather. If storm clouds are gathering heavy with snow then the sky can get quite dark even when the sun is up. Do keep in mind though that there are a couple of hours of twilight in addition to the daylight hours. So if you are sightseeing or driving in Iceland then you will have a little more time each end of the day.


The Midnight Sun in Iceland

The natural phenomenon of the Midnight Sun occurs in the months either side of the summer solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere this falls in late June. So if you are visiting Iceland in the summer months you will experience the Midnight Sun. In late June there are almost 24 hours of daylight. In actual fact the sun sets at about 3am on the longest day. But with the sun rising just a couple of hours later it never gets fully dark. The sun will have dipped only just below the horizon line during these few short hours. So there is still plenty of light in the sky to see quite clearly. There will be a sort of twilight across the island before the sky brightens again.


Things to do in winter

Winter is a wonderful time to visit Iceland as long as you come prepared. If you know what to expect and you plan around that then there is so much to do. All sorts of winter activities abound. From ice caving and hiking across glaciers to snowmobile rides and 4x4 adventure tours. Skiing and snowboarding are also possible in Iceland. There are several resorts to choose between in the north. Many of the slopes are floodlit too so you don’t even need to stick to daylight hours.


Add to this some exceptional sightseeing and you have one very special travel destination. Of course, Iceland is beautiful in summer but there is something extra special about seeing the landscapes dusted in snow. The light in winter with those fiery and golden sunsets and sunrises adds another dimension to this beauty too. Photographers particularly favour this time of year for the incredible light. Even amateur photographers should be impressed with their vacation snaps.


And lets not forget about the Northern Lights. This incredible natural phenomenon is one of the most famous sights in Iceland. And the winter months are by far the best time to see them. To catch a glimpse of the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis you need pitch black skies. Visiting Iceland in winter certainly ups your chances of witnessing them. For more Aurora hunting tips visit our article on Finding the Northern Lights in Iceland.


Driving and camping in winter

Even in the winter months there is still the opportunity to see many of Iceland’s famous sights. You can take road trips and hire campervans or motorhomes too. You just need to be less ambitious with your road trips and flexible to take into account the weather. You can even go whale watching in winter in southern Iceland. You just have fewer daylight hours to do everything in. It is also not as cold as you might think with average southern temperatures of around zero degrees Celsius.


The weather in Iceland can be prohibitive for driving long distances in winter though. So you will need to check forecasts and stay flexible. If you would like to hire a motorhome or campervan the best idea is to stick to shorter road trips. Many of the campsites around south Iceland stay open year round and the roads are usually accessible to all. Up in the north many of the campsites close for the winter months. This area of Iceland is far less inhabited too so there are fewer amenities in general and the road conditions are generally trickier.


There is plenty enough to explore in the south though. You might choose to take your time and spend a few days exploring the Golden Circle. Or perhaps take in the many sights of Iceland’s South Coast or head west to the lovely Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Wherever you choose to roam the landscapes and beauty of Iceland are sure to blow you away.

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