How dark does it get in Iceland in winter?

By now you should know how things work over here: If I get asked a question often enough it will end up as a blog post sooner or later. Mostly because it’s obvious that people are looking for the answer and not finding it so making it available seems like a good and sensible thing to do but also a little bit so I don’t lose my mind.

Layers. You need to pack layers.

Today’s post is inspired by one such question that started sneaking into my inbox as soon as summer came to an end. To be fair, it’s not really a single question but more of a theme or umbrella of ponderings. In short, what people want to know is whether or not the limited daylight in Iceland in winter will affect a certain tour or activity that they may or may not want to book. I just couldn’t fit all that into a descriptive and optimally long title for this post.

Question: How dark does it get in Iceland in winter and how does that darkness affect the tours I book?

Before we go any further, I think it’s good to introduce what in Astronomy (I think – please correct me if I’m wrong) is called Civil Twilight and is quite relevant to this post. This is how the website TimeandDate.com defines Civil Twilight:

During civil twilight, the geometric center of the Sun’s disk is at most 6 degrees below the horizon. In the morning, this twilight phase ends at sunrise; in the evening it begins at sunset. Sunrise and sunset are the moments when the Sun’s upper edge touches the horizon

For us non-science geeks that feel dizzy trying to understand what that means, this simply refers to the periods before sunrise and after sunset when it’s not entirely bright but also not completely dark. These periods are also often called dusk and dawn and in winter in Iceland they can last a while.

The longest day of the year is on the summer solstice which, depending on the year, lands somewhere between June 20th and June 22nd here in the Northern Hemisphere. On this day, the sun rises around 3 am and sets around midnight which gives us about 21 hours of daylight. During the hours in between, we have the civil twilight I mentioned before where it’s bright enough that you don’t need any artificial lighting to see your surroundings, as long as the weather allows for it, but it’s not full daylight either.

After the summer solstice, we start losing daylight day by day but it’s a slow process. It happens gradually at first as we first lose a few seconds and then minutes but by the end of July, we’re losing a steady 6+ minutes a day. This period ends on the shortest day of the year or Winter Solstice which falls somewhere between December 20th and December 23rd. On this day, the sun rises around 11:20 and sets around 15:30 which gives us just over 4 hours of daylight. However, when we factor in the civil twilight we actually have about 7 hours where we don’t need artificial lighting such as lampposts or flashlights to see our surroundings if the conditions are right. After winter solstice we start gaining a few minutes every day until we’re back to almost 24-hour daylight on the summer solstice.

The reason I’m going into this in some details is that some people a) don’t realize that the daylight isn’t a constant but a circular process so when they read that Iceland only has 4 hours of daylight in winter they think this applies to the whole winter and not just the darkest period and b) they also think that for the remaining 20 hours it’s pitch black which is obviously not the case.

So, to answer the first part of the question asked in this post: It gets pretty dark during the darkest period of the year, especially if the weather is bad, but you shouldn’t forget about dusk and dawn and the fact the number of daylight hours depends on when in the winter you’re arriving. So maybe not as dark as you initially thought.

I often use this website for any questions about sunrise and sunset here in Reykjavík and everything in between.

What we have left then is the question of how this affects your tours.

When you book a tour like the Golden Circle, for example, you are basically paying someone for taking you to the main highlights on that route which are Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and Geysir Geothermal area. Although the landscape in between those places can be interesting and beautiful, that’s not the reason you booked the tour but more just an added bonus. You came to see waterfalls and geysers!

The drive to Þingvellir National Park, which is usually the first stop on the Golden Circle, is 45-60 minutes, depending on the conditions and how bad traffic is getting out of town. On the way back, the drive from Geysir to Reykjavík is about an hour and 45 minutes or so and could possibly stretch to 2 hours if traffic is bad. Already, without factoring in the driving between places, we’ve allocated almost 3 hours out of your 8 hour day to something that is not really the reason why you’re doing the tour but more a necessary evil to get to those reasons.

What the tour operators do in winter is that they organize their tours around these facts. They make sure that you see all the highlights while it’s still bright enough for you to enjoy them and they do the driving to get there and back while it’s darker.

The same goes for a tour to the south coast, you will drive for almost 2 hours before you get to the area where the main focus of the day is and then you need to drive the same way back. So 4 hours out of your 10 hour day, is the same necessary evil to get to the majestic waterfalls and black sand beaches as mentioned in the example with the Golden Circle.

So when you wonder whether it’s worth it to do a tour in winter because it’s dark all the time, you need to ask yourself why you want to do that tour. Is it because of those areas you drive through to get to the highlights or is it the actual highlights? If it’s the latter, then the tour is probably worth it, right?

I think a part of the reason why people are skeptical about doing tours in winter in Iceland is that there’s this myth floating around the internet that Icelandic tour operators are out to get you and your money. So if they’re offering tours in winter, when you’ve read that it’s dark all of the time, this must be part of this grand tourist scam.

Although I know there are bad apples here like everywhere else, the majority of tour operators are simply providing a service and many of them do a great job doing exactly that. A few years ago many tour operators only offered tours in the summertime but then more and more people started to come to Iceland in winter and with them came a demand for activities. So the demand was met with supply and once the tour operators made the commitment to offer tours year round they, of course, needed to put their marketing focus there to fill up those vehicles. This snowballed and before we knew it, Iceland became a popular winter destination and most tours are now offered year round.

This, of course, is an oversimplification (the government was also involved because it was important to make tourism a year-round industry to create more jobs, for example, especially in the countryside) but the fact remains that winter tours are not a scam.

Now, will you have exactly the same experience in winter as in summer?

No.

Will you see more of the landscape in summer?

Yes.

This doesn’t mean though that seeing Iceland in its winter coat can’t be a fulfilling and meaningful experience. The darkness is as much a part of Iceland as anything else and it has some added benefits such as the northern lights that are not visible in summer. Like with anything else, you just need to be informed of exactly what you’re getting yourself into and adjust your expectations accordingly. Instead of worrying about what you’re missing, focus on how amazing Gullfoss waterfall looks half frozen or what an amazing background a purple sky makes on your photos of Þingvellir national park. Iceland in winter is amazing if you just allow it to be.

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