Iceland is the westernmost European country, situated in the North Atlantic between North America and Europe. Iceland is east of Greenland and south of the Arctic Circle, atop the northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It lies 859 kilometers from Scotland and 4,200 kilometers from New York City. The area of Iceland is 103,022 square kilometers, and a frequent comparison among Icelandic tour guides is that Iceland is roughly the size of the U.S. state Kentucky.

Climate

If the weather forecast is showing strong winds, especially in the countryside, alter your plans accordingly.Iceland isn’t as cold as you may think. The Gulf Stream swirls along the western and southern coasts and works to moderate Iceland’s climate. But moderate doesn’t mean calm, as the Gulf Stream is responsible for the frequent weather changes—as in lots of wind and rain. The biggest climate challenge is the unpredictability of it. The “summer” tourist season runs from the end of May to the beginning of September, and during that time, the climate ranges from rainy May days to the midnight sun in July to the possibility of snow in September. The winter climate brings colder temperatures, dark days, whipping winds, and the possibility of seeing northern lights flicker and dance on clear nights.

Winter in Iceland. Photo © Jenna Gottlieb.

Winter in Iceland. Photo © Jenna Gottlieb.

Weather

Weather in Iceland is not casual conversation, but serious business. Weather forecasts are frequent but largely hit or miss. The weather can change rapidly, from calm winds and sunny skies to rain, snow, sleet and back to calm wind and sunny skies, all in the same hour. It’s unpredictable, frustrating, exhilarating, and confusing for many tourists, but Icelanders have learned to adapt and go with the flow. As a result, plans tend to be loose, whether it’s for meeting friends for coffee or a job interview. If the weather acts up, locals understand.

Some of the most extreme weather you could experience on this island is wind—the type of wind in winter that could knock you off your feet. If the weather forecast is showing strong winds, especially in the countryside, alter your plans accordingly. Do not underestimate the wind, and heed any storm advisories. Be safe, smart, and prepared. The changing conditions are part of the experience of traveling to Iceland, and the key is being prepared with layers of clothing, proper footwear, and waterproof outerwear.

Volcanoes

Volcanic eruptions are a growing source of tourism for the country. Local travel companies offer helicopter, jeep and airplane tours when an eruption occurs. Most of Iceland’s volcanic eruptions are fissure vents, like the 2014 Holuhraun eruption, where lava seeps out of the cracks in the earth’s crust. Holuhraun produced fountains of lava shooting out of the earth, delighting photographers and keeping volcanologists busy trying to determine if the nearby Bárðarbunga volcano will erupt. At the time of this writing, it hasn’t. The three most active volcanoes on the island are Katla, Hekla, and Eyjafjallajökull. Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, grounding air travel in Europe for days thanks to a large ash cloud.

Residents have learned to adapt to eruptions, and most volcanoes are away from residential areas. In the case of the 2014 Holuhraun eruption, the surrounding area near Vatnajökull was evacuated of locals, and tourists and animals were moved from the area. The main threat was toxins in the air, and those close to the region were asked to stay indoors and turn up their heating if they were sensitive to air quality.

Air

When there isn’t an eruption, Iceland’s air is some of the cleanest and purest you will experience, as pollution is low and the Gulf Stream produces a strong, steady wind that blows toxins away. The main source of pollution on the island is from industry, mainly aluminum smelters.

Water

Like the air, Iceland’s water is perfectly pure. There’s clean, tasty drinking water on tap and geothermally heated water that powers swimming pools and hot water in homes. Snow can fall in any month of the year, but large snowfalls are uncommon in the Reykjavík area, at least during the last couple of decades. Ice covers about 11 percent of the country, mostly in the form of Iceland’s largest glaciers: Vatnajökull, Hofsjökull, Langjökull, and Mýrdalsjökull. Melting ice from the glaciers and melting snow form the rivers.

Iceland’s water also serves as some of its tourist attractions. The manmade Blue Lagoon near Grindavík allows visitors to bathe in geothermally heated water, which soothes and heals the skin. Locals and tourists enjoy hot springs throughout the country, and spectacular waterfalls with roaring water tumble over basalt rock and earth. The largest and most visited waterfalls in Iceland are Gullfoss, Dettifoss, Goðafoss, and Skógafoss.

The northern lights above a lighthouse on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Photo © Sigurbjorn Ragnars/Dreamstime.

The northern lights above a lighthouse on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Photo © Sigurbjorn Ragnars/Dreamstime.

Northern Lights

The biggest winter attraction in Iceland is the aurora borealis (northern lights). People travel from around the world to catch a glimpse of the green, white, blue, and red lights dancing in the night sky. There’s something very special about bundling up in your warmest winter gear, trekking outside main towns to avoid bright lights, and hunting for the aurora borealis. The phenomenon is caused by solar winds, which push electronic particles to collide with molecules of atmospheric gases, causing an emission of bright light. The best time to see northern lights is from October to March, and there are forecasts predicting visibility on the national weather website. When the forecast is strong, it’s best to drive (or take a tour bus) to a dark area and look up. Northern lights tours are offered by Reykjavik Excursions.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Iceland.