“If you dont like the weather right now, just wait five minutes,” people sometimes say in Iceland. This indicates the strong variability of the Icelandic weather, where one may occasionally experience the four seasons over a day. There are some variations in the climate between different parts of the island. Generally speaking, the south coast is warmer, wetter and windier than the north. The central highlands are the coldest part of the country.
The warm Gulf Stream ensures generally higher annual temperatures than in most places of similar latitude. Despite its proximity to the Arctic, the island’s coasts remain ice-free through the winter. Nevertheless the annual mean temperature along the south and southwestern coast is only 4-6°C , and lower in other parts of the island. The average temperature of the warmest month, is 9-12°C. The warmest summer days can reach 20-25°C. Winters are generally very mild for this northerly latitude. The coastal lowlands have mean January temperatures close to 0°C, and only in the highlands of central Iceland do the temperatures stay below -10°C.
Rain and snow
Depending on the passage of low pressure areas the south and southeast coasts of Iceland have the highest precipitation. Topography has a strong influence on the amount and distribution of rainfall: the highest amounts are in the southeast with about 4000 mm per year on the ice cap of Vatnajökull, whereas the lowest are located in the northern parts with amounts lower than 600 mm. Autumn and early winter represent the season with greatest precipitation in most parts of Iceland. May and June are the driest month. In northern Iceland most of the winter precipitation falls as snow and a complete snow cover may exists for weeks or even month, whereas in south Iceland the snow cover is more variable
Wind and storms
Regionally and locally wind directions and wind speeds are highly influenced by topography and altitude. Generally, wind speeds are higher in the highlands than the coastal lowlands, but local relief can canalize winds and cause very high winds in some lowland valleys. The frequency of storms is highest in the fall and during the winter months. Dust storms are strong, dry winds coming off the interior or the large ice caps onto the large sandy areas and the arid highlands can generate heavy dust storms. The dust storms are very effective in eroding and transporting soil materials.
Midnight sun, northern lights and polar night
Iceland is located south of the Arctic Circle except the island Grímsey in the north of the mainland. This means that Iceland is not touched by the total midnight sun or polar night, but of course is highly influenced of it. In summer the sun sets down under the horizon but nevertheless it is still bright. Midnight sun is a state of mind – time makes no sense and there is light around the clock. The warm nightlight and the long shadows create a dreamlike scenery.
The winter darkness is the companion to the midnight sun and equal fascinating. The shortest day is 21th of December and the sun rise up for about 4 hours. But snow, the moon, stars and northern lights illuminate the darkness and give an unreal atmosphere. Northern lights (Aurora Borealis) itself are a sufficient reason to travel to the North. White, yellow, green and red they sweep across the sky. Northern lights appear all year round, but they can only be observed against a clear, dark night sky.
Best travel season
The best travel time depends on what you like to see and like to do. The seasons in Iceland are strongly different and each has its own charm and specific reasons to come to Iceland.
Spring is the time when after a long period of winter everything celebrates the new life that is created and borne with the warming up of the sun. The day length increase rapidly and the migrant birds return to Iceland, so it is the perfect time for bird watching.
Summer welcomes you with the warmest weather and bright nights. Most tourist visit the island between June and August and all tourist infrastructures like accommodation, museums and restaurants are opened – but also high frequented and especially in July it is recommended to book in advance. It is the only time in the year to discover the wonders of the uninhabited central highlands. A long the coast you have best possibilities to watch wildlife like birds and whales.
In autumn life gets a bit calmer and most tourists are leaving the island now. Nevertheless there is still a lot to discover and enjoy: the blueberries are ripe for picking and the nature glows in colorful patterns when the leaves turn into all varieties of red, orange, and yellow – this is not the Indian, but maybe a kind of Viking summer. In September there are the so called “Réttirs”, the round-ups, when the farmers collecting the sheep in the mountains and bring them down to the valley. And with the return of the night after the bright summer nights the northern lights start to dance.
Winter is the best time to see these flickering veils of light, in green, white or red, especially in cold clear nights. The special light of the lower sun and the cover of snow give the landscapes a completely different, sometimes unreal and magical appearance. There are not many and quite small ski areas with ski lifts, but if you like to go cross country skiing you find very good conditions between February and March – and afterwards you will fully enjoy the benefit of the hot springs and hotpots in the swimming pools.
Choosing the travel season you should keep in mind that not all areas are accessible during the whole year. In summer usually all roads are opened but could be closed occasionally when water in rivers get too high or roads are damaged.