The Weather and Climate of Iceland
Every Icelander’s favourite topic, this article could easily turn into a tome if we’re not careful. Iceland just gets so much weather, you see. Arrive in the country expecting every type of weather and you probably won’t get caught out.
Let’s begin with the country’s general climate, shall we? Thanks to strong ocean currents, Iceland is a good deal warmer than its position at the gates of the Arctic would suggest. A lot warmer, in fact. The average January temperature in Reykjavík is zero degrees Centigrade. That is considerably warmer than Beijing and about the same as Vancouver. Not bad for somewhere at the same latitude as Alaska, Nunavut and the Yukon.
Those same ocean currents, however, keep a cap on summer temperatures and bring plenty of wind and precipitation along the way. The ancient Icelandic calendar (still partially in use today) split the year into just two seasons: winter from late October to late April, and summer for the other half of the year. Their system is as accurate as it is simple – although it does mean we have to squeeze the modern ‘inventions’ of spring and autumn into the summer season. Five or six months of winter is about right – the south and southwest of Iceland having the least winter of the whole country.
It is a strange feature of Iceland that the seasons are so distinct, but the temperature swing so small. If you visit Reykjavík in January you can probably expect temperatures between -10°C and +10°C (most commonly somewhere in the middle). Conversely, in July you can expect it to be about +10°C to +20°C. That is an annual extreme temperature range of just 30 degrees and means that any given day of the year could be ten degrees above zero. That is weird, and the lack of variation between night and day temperatures is even weirder. With the exception of the heat of direct sunshine, the nights are usually a very similar temperature to the days.
The joke goes, if you don’t like the Icelandic weather, just wait five minutes. Other people say Iceland doesn’t get weather at all – just samples. One thing is for sure though; a nice day in Iceland is nicer than anywhere else. Maybe that’s just because we appreciate it more. The sun seems hotter in Iceland and you might surprise yourself when you start stripping off to sunbathe and then notice that the thermometer says just 12 or 13 degrees.
If you visit Iceland in the winter, dress for snow, wind and rain and you will be fine. It’s not the North Pole, but you will need a good coat, hat and gloves. You can expect warm (5-8 degrees), windy and rainy; or cold (0 to -5), bright and still. Hopefully, you will get to experience both.
If you fly to Iceland in the summer you should still dress for wind and rain – and even bring a hat and gloves. With any luck, you won’t need them, but it’s always best to have too much clothing rather than too little. Many tourists are very pleasantly surprised by our weather: Iceland often experiences whole weeks (or even two) of genuinely excellent, unbroken warm weather. At other times you should expect to try the weather samples mentioned above!
The highest temperature ever recorded in Iceland was 30.5°C and that was way back in 1939. In Reykjavík, the all-time record is 26.2 degrees, one fine day in July 2008.
The coldest ever recorded temperature in Iceland was -38°C back in the ‘Great Frost Winter’ of 1918. In Reykjavík, the record is -24.5°C in the same incredible winter.