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Climate and Weather

Iceland - Climate and Weather

The climate in Iceland is variable but perhaps not as harsh as assumed given its southern coastal location. The Iceland-lows (atmospheric depressions) which sweep the North Atlantic are the driving force behind this changeable climate with the Gulf stream also playing a part. Contrasting with this is the cold Arctic air. As a result, the weather is fairly cold and dry particularly in the south with dry and moderate weather in the north and north east. Whilst it is common in winter for coastal parts of Iceland to encounter gales, thunderstorms are not common. The saying used by locals is ‘If you don’t like the weather in Iceland wait 5 minutes’ which suggests that the bad weather could quickly change. Given Iceland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle it is surprising that she has four clearly distinguished seasons.

April to May sees spring arrive as the days’ temperature begins to shift to warmer more pleasant conditions and the snow melts on the mountains and fields. The air is dry and the skies are bright. The fishing and golfing seasons begin again and tourists arrive during these milder temperatures to enjoy the beauty of the landscapes before the colder, winter weather, brings more tourists in their droves. Summer sets in from June to the end of August and makes way for sunshine, beautiful clear days and the infamous Midnight Sun and 24 hours of continuous daylight. Temperature highs can reach 20–25 °C but the average temperature during the summer is a pleasant 10–13 °C. Summer is the most popular time for tourists to visit, and the best time to see the spectacular landscapes in all their glory. Apart from occasional light showers the summertime is usually fairly dry.

During the autumn in September and October the temperatures cool down. There may be highs of 6 °C and lows of 2°C in Reykjavik with the easterly Egilsstaðir and Akureyri experiencing very similar temperatures. In September and October the Northern Lights begin to show themselves. Temperatures fall and the hours of daylight decrease as November with its chiller nights sets in with an increase of showers. Winter sees snowfall, ice, bitter winds and temperatures of around −25 −30°C in the Northern part of the country with the Highlands averaging around −10 °C during the season. The south is milder with an average temperature of approximatlely 0°C. The air is crisp and chilly in winter and sunlight is limited. If driving during the winter you may find poor visibility, limited sunlight hours and falling snow are hazardous, so the utmost care must be taken before you commence your journey by checking the weather and the safest route for your travel.

Suitable clothing in winter and autumn particularly for new expats and those not used to sub-zero temperatures is certainly required. Thermals, thick woollen layers, water tight shoes and waterproof jackets are recommended. Sunglasses can help during gusts of icy winds and bright sunlight. Do pack substantial hats which cover the ears and a thick pair of gloves. Invest in some locally made Icelandic woollen jumpers which are fashionable, warm and practical. Strong and well-made hiking boots are ideal. These boots can still be taken during warmer months too as nights tend to get a bit chilly and suitable outdoor shoes should be worn at all times. Choose more lightweight alternatives for the warmer months in spring and summer. You may not need the chunky knits all year round but always be prepared. It is easier to shed layers on a warmer day than add them when it is colder than expected.

Those moving to Iceland for the most part use Reykjavik temperatures as a basis when it comes to determining the climate and weather of Iceland. The following table shows the typical monthly maximum, minimum and average temperatures in Reykjavik.

The typical monthly rainfall varies around Iceland with the south coast and west having the most precipitation. The north highlands tend to have the least precipitation. Although there isn’t a rainy season per say it is more common for rain to fall between October and February than in other months and summers are usually dry. The table below details the average rainfall per month for Reykjavik.

In the capital you can expect an average of 1258 hours of sunlight per year which equals an average of 3.26 hours per day. This is due to very limited daylight hours during October to February (0-4 hours of sunlight a day on average per month) with longer daylight hours in May, June and July (6 hours). Amazingly on the 21st of June in the Westfjords the sun is visible for the entire day. Whilst we may reserve thoughts on humidity for tropical and warmer climates, Iceland actually shows a consistently high percentage of humidity all year round. Humidity peaks in June with just over 80% relative humidity on average and the lowest doesn’t differ greatly with around 75% in May.

Iceland is a country of revered natural beauty. Its flat lands contrast with towering mountains, volcanoes, natural springs and its fault line location on the top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (Þingvellir in the southwest) create keen wonderment but also the unpredictable risk of environmental dangers. Whilst it is entirely safe to live in Iceland, it is worth noting that the nature there is to be respected and understood as a living energy existing alongside humans. There are 130 volcanoes in Iceland, some of which are extinct and some of which are active. In 1783 before the small population of people in Iceland had knowledge or forewarning that modern day science can give, 10,000 people lost their lives when Laki erupted. This was due to complications with the hot ash filled air which is harmful to the lungs. Laki, together with Edfell in 1973 which killed one person, are the only known eruptions to cause fatalities. The last recorded large eruption was in 2014 in the area surrounding the Bárðarbunga volcano in the east of Iceland.

Iceland is entirely prepared for such risks, they have an eruption warning system in place organised by the Icelandic Met Office and the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue teams. Try to submit your route to these groups before you undertake your journey so that they can reach you if you get into trouble). Locals living in close proximity to the volcanoes trust their safety.

Earthquakes do occur in Iceland. There are 150 to 400 earthquakes in Iceland over the period of a week but these are all low level on the Richter scale. These earthquakes only measure 3.8 in magnitude and are considered small.

Earthquakes and volcanic movement can lead to landslides and avalanches in Iceland. Since 1972 69 people have died in avalanches. People can check for avalanches by using an online avalanche viewer. Evacuation procedures are in place with snow observers in avalanche prone villages and towns. Hazard zoning is still a concern when it comes to tourists or even locals exploring certain areas. The rule is stick to local advice, travel in groups for safety, check the avalanche map viewer and always choose tours where you can guarantee safe and informed routes.

Landslides are monitored and recorded by the Icelandic Met Office who send out warnings via their website. Also check for road conditions with the Iceland Road administration road conditions website. Landslides can also be caused by heavy rain and spring melting water so do be proactive in checking for a hazard less route for your drive. The World Risk Report (2014), by the Institute of the Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University lists Iceland as the 6th safest country in the world in terms of being one of the least likely countries to die from a natural disaster even weighing up all of the local environmental risks.

Useful Resources:

Icelandic Meteorological Office http://en.vedur.is/

Iceland Road Administration (road conditions website)

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