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Climate - Iceland

Temperature, rainfall, prevailing weather conditions, when to go, what to pack

United States version (°F - inches - feet). See also the metric version (°C - mm - meters)

Flag - Iceland

Map - Iceland

Iceland has a cold, windy and cloudy climate for most of the year. Surely it's a cold country due to the high latitude, therefore it can receive cold winds from the North Pole, but it's also tempered by the ocean, in which in addition the mild Gulf Stream flows. The result is a perpetually unstable climate, with sudden changes in weather and temperature, but with a limited temperature range, both between day and night and between winter and summer. Calm and sunny periods are rare. The northern coastal area is cooler than the southern one, because it is not reached by the Gulf Stream.
Precipitation is abundant on the southern side, where around 80 inches of rain or snow fall each year in areas exposed to the south, while on the northern side it's much more scarce, so that it descends below 20 inches per year, although even here the rains are well distributed throughout the year. Along the west coast, the amount of precipitation is halfway between the two sides, so that in the capital Reykjavik, about 31.5 inches of rain or snow fall each year.
Here is the average precipitation in Reykjavik.
Average precipitation Reykjavik
Reykjavik J F M A M J J A S O N D Year
Prec. (in) 3.0 2.8 3.2 2.3 1.7 2.0 2.0 2.4 2.6 3.4 2.9 3.1 31.4
Days 13 13 14 12 10 11 10 12 12 15 13 14 148

Iceland is a land of ice, fire and deserts. In the interior there are vast glaciers, while the geothermal activity determines the presence of geysers and hot water springs, that allow people to swim even if there is snow around; on the other hand, the underground volcanic activity may cause sudden melting of glaciers, with the risk of flooding. It's worth noting the almost total absence of trees as well as the presence of sandy soils in inland areas, where strong winds can cause dust storms. In inland areas, there are plateaus and mountains, and with increasing altitude the temperature naturally decreases. Because of the cold summers, the snow melts only at low altitude, so the snowline is very low, at around 2,300 feet.
Here are the average temperatures of Reykjavik.
Reykjavik average temperatures
Reykjavik J F M A M J J A S O N D
Min (°F) 28 28 29 33 40 45 48 48 43 36 31 29
Max (°F) 36 37 38 43 49 54 57 56 51 44 39 37

The sea is cold throughout the year: the water temperature at Reykjavik runs from 37 °F in February to 46 °F in July and August, therefore it's better to bathe in thermal pools...
Sea temperature Reykjavik
Reykjavik J F M A M J J A S O N D
Sea (°F) 39 37 37 37 39 43 46 46 45 41 41 39

Along the south-east coast, where a branch of the Gulf Stream runs, the sea temperature is higher, going from 45 °F in the winter months, to 50/52 °F in the summer months.

In winter, Iceland is not so cold, in fact the average temperatures of plains and coasts are around the freezing point. This means that sometimes the temperatures can exceed 32 °F even in winter, and rain instead of snow can fall.
Along the northern coast, winter is colder by a few degrees, and here the sea can freeze inside fjords. In inland areas, winter is colder, especially with increasing altitude. Snowfalls are plentiful along the southern slopes, while they are frequent but less abundant elsewhere. Winter is still very long, so that the temperature rises very slowly during the spring. Even in April, the daytime temperatures are around 43 °F in Reykjavik. Across Iceland, it can snow from October to May; along the northern coasts, sudden snow showers may occur even in June and September, while in the inland areas, thanks to the altitude this can happen even in summer.
During winter, cold air masses from Greenland can lower the temperatures to around 5/15 °F, however, these cold spells are short, because, subsequently, milder winds from the south begin to blow again. Even the cold records are not so low, at least for the latitude, being around -4 °F along the coast, and around -22 °F in inland areas.

Summer is very cool throughout Iceland. The maximum temperatures exceed 50 °F only in the months of June, July and August. In the capital, during the warmest months, July and August, the night temperatures are around 48 °F and highs are around 56/57 °F, while on the north coast they are around 50/54 degrees. On the other hand, the days are very long. In Iceland, the weather virtually never gets warm: the temperature rises rarely and for short periods above 68 °F. The highest records along the coast are around 73 °F, and only in some sheltered inland areas, they can reach 81/82 °F.


When to go

The best time to visit Iceland is summer, from June to August. Spring is cold and it looks like winter, with frequent snowfall and frost, but at least the days are longer than in autumn. For skiing and cross-country skiing, March is better than the mid-winter period, because the days are much longer.
As in all the Nordic countries, the length of the day has a significant effect, if not directly on the climate, on the sensations experienced by residents and tourists: the months of late autumn and early winter are characterized by endless nights and very short days, in which the sun remains very low above the horizon even at noon. In Reykjavík, at the winter solstice (December the 21st) the sun rises around 11:30 am and sets around 3:30 pm. A already in February, the days are longer than in the period from November to January, even though the temperature is not higher.
In summer, the days are long especially in June, when it is not completely dark even at midnight, and in the north, at the summer solstice (June 21) the sun does not set at all, since the extreme north of Iceland touches the Arctic Circle. In the small island of Grimsey, which is right on the Arctic Circle, at the summer solstice the sun is cut into two by the horizon at the moment when it is lower (which happens actually around 1 a.m.). In the island of Iceland, the points closer to the Arctic Circle are the Northeast (see Raufarhöfn) and the Northwest (see Ísafjörður), which are very close to the Arctic Circle. Already in Akureyri, the sun goes just below the horizon around 1 a.m., while in Reykjavík, although it does not get completely dark, the sun goes below the horizon from midnight to 3 a.m.
This latter phenomenon, called white nights, whereby the sun drops below the horizon but remains close enough, so that the lights of the sunset remain even at midnight, in Reykjavik lasts from May 20 to July 23, although some faint lights around midnight are visible from late April and until late August.

What to pack

In winter: warm clothes, fleece, down jacket, hat, gloves, wind jacket, raincoat or umbrella, hiking boots, swimsuit.
In summer: sweater, shirt, jacket, hiking shoes, raincoat or umbrella, swimsuit.

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