You’ve heard of Northern Lights, but what about Southern Lights? In this complete guide to the Aurora Australis we answer your questions, including what are the Southern Lights, and when and where can you see the Southern Lights aurora.
When we think of the aurora, it is usually the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) around Europe and North America that comes to mind. However, the aurora occurs at both poles, and is also visible at the south pole. It is this southern aurora that we call the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis).
In this comprehensive article, we discuss all things Southern Lights aurora. We cover when and where you can see the Southern Lights, scientific explanation of what the Southern Lights are, and conclude with a few travel tips. The aurora australis is more difficult to visit than the aurora borealis, but if you are up to the challenge, then read on.
If there are Northern Lights… are there Southern Lights too?
Most of the world is familiar with the northern lights, and as a result, many people have often wondered whether there are also southern lights.
The answer is YES, there are Southern Lights!
The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, occur in the northern hemisphere within what is known as the auroral oval. There is also an auroral oval in the southern hemisphere, where you will find the aurora australis (aka southern lights).
The reason that more people are familiar with the northern lights, is simply due to the higher populations in the Arctic region. Very few people actually live in the Antarctic region.
What are the southern lights called?
- Northern Lights = Aurora Borealis
- Southern Lights = Aurora Australis
Both the aurora borealis and the aurora australis are named after the goddess of dawn. In Roman mythology, Aurora was responsible for announcing the arrival of the sun every single morning. Today, she is remembered for the natural phenomenon that appears at both the northern and southern poles.
Northern Lights name. In the scientific community, the northern lights are most commonly referred to as the aurora borealis. The term borealis comes from a Greek word which simply means ‘the north wind’.
Southern Lights name. The southern lights name, on the other hand, is known in the scientific community as the aurora australis. Likewise, the word australis comes from the Greek word auster meaning ‘the south wind’.
Southern Lights vs Northern Lights
There are very few differences between the northern and southern lights. In fact, the only real difference between them is the location and months in which they occur.
Northern Lights are generally only visible from September to April, whereas the Southern Lights aurora is most visible from the months of May to October
Location of Southern Lights vs Northern Lights
The main difference in location is that the northern lights can only be found in the northern hemisphere, whereas the southern lights will always be found in the southern hemisphere.
- Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) = Northern Hemisphere
- Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) = Southern Hemisphere
The northern lights occur in a region known as the northern auroral oval, which extends from the north pole (Arctic) down to roughly 65-70° N latitude. Because of easy access to land areas in the northern hemisphere, the aurora borealis is the most known of the two natural phenomena.
The southern lights, on the other hand, occur in the region between the south pole (Antarctica) and roughly 65-70° S latitude. The biggest challenge with seeing the southern lights aurora is access to vantage points in the southern hemisphere.
The area where aurora australis is most visible is around inhospitable Antarctica, which is very difficult to access and has no permanent population. However, the southern lights can still be sighted in the southernmost portions of New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina.
When & Where Can You See the Southern Lights
WHERE can you see the Southern Lights?
Unlike the northern hemisphere, there are relatively few places in the southern hemisphere in order to view the aurora australis. While it is possible to view the natural phenomenon from Antarctica, is a very inhospitable place to visit for the average person.
In fact, during the winter months when the auroras are most visible, the labs in Antarctica are generally manned by skeleton crews. Instead, in order to view these southern lights, you will need to travel to the southern portions of Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Argentina, as well as South Georgia Island, and the South Sandwich Islands.
Australia (incl. Tasmania)
There are very few places in mainland Australia in which to view the aurora australis clearly. The most popular location can be found a few hours’ drive south of Melbourne. The Wilsons Promontory National Park is one of the few locations on the mainland that offers a view of the southern lights.
For a better view of the Southern Lights, you’ll need to travel further south to the island of Tasmania. This island state of Australia, which is situated about 300 miles south of Melbourne, is the only place in the world where you can see the Southern Lights Aurora Australis year-round. It is located at the perfect distance from the south pole, to provide viewers with ample opportunity to hunt for the lights regardless of the time of year.
The southern tip of New Zealand also extends well into the southern aurora oval. There is even a special reserve in the country that is dedicated to viewing the night skies. The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve can be found in the center of the South Island of New Zealand, nestled high atop a mountain peak. Here, you will be provided with an unobstructed view of the aurora australis.
Known as the southernmost city, you will find Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina in South America. During the winter months, the southern tip of Argentina receives more than 17 hours of darkness every single day. This provides ample opportunity to view the aurora australis. While it is a very remote destination, the city can still be accessed via its small airport. However, the region is also famous for cloudy skies, and unpredictable weather that will otherwise interfere with your ability to view the aurora.
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
Situated more than 400 miles east of South America, you will find the South Georgia Island and the South Sandwich Islands. South Georgia Island is home to a mere 100 people, most of whom work within the scientific community. The island is also home to around 450,000 king penguins. The only way to access the region is by boat, and during March and April, many cruises will even take you out to the island to view the aurora australis.
WHEN can you see the Southern Lights?
The auroras exist 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. However, they cannot be seen when there is too much light in the atmosphere.
As a result, you will not see them during the daytime, or when the nights are very short in length. It’s also more difficult to view the lights in cities, where light pollution can interfere with their visibility.
Just like the northern lights, the best time to view the southern lights is around the wintertime. However, it is important to remember that winter is opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres.
Winter months are best (May to October)
The best time to view the Southern Lights Aurora Australis is from May to October, which are the cold months in the Southern Hemisphere.
During the cooler winter months in the southern hemisphere, which start in May and can extend all the way into October, the nights are longer than the daytime. The longer nights of late-Autumn, Winter and early-Spring therefore provide better opportunities for viewing the aurora australis.
Midnight to 3am is best
Because of the importance that light plays in the ability to view the aurora australis, it is best to wait until the sun has completely set before searching the night skies. For hours after the sun has set, there is still way too much light in the skies to clearly see the auroras. This period, which is known as the twilight, can easily interfere with the clear viewing of the aurora australis. As a result, the best time for viewing the southern lights is from midnight till about 3 in the morning.
View during a New Moon
You also need to pay close attention to the phases of the moon. Naturally, if light pollution can interfere with the ability to view the auroras, then hunting for them during a full moon would be counterproductive. During the brightest point of the full moon, the sun’s light is reflected off of the surface of the moon, and as a result, lights up the night sky. This light intensity can be far too bright for viewing the aurora australis. Instead, try to plan your trip when there is a new moon.
Pay attention to the weather
Of course, nothing interferes with any vacation quite like bad weather. The last thing that you want to happen when you are hunting for the southern lights, is a snowstorm. The clouds can create an entire blanket over the area preventing you from even seeing a few stars in the night sky. It’s important to pay close attention to the weather report before heading out on your hunt.
To be on the safe side you should probably allow at least 5 nights in the location, if you can. I can’t speak for New Zealand or Argentina, but I have visited Tasmania twice (winter and summer) and on both trips it rained every day at some point. It truly is a place of ‘four seasons in one day’ with cloud cover that seems to casually amble in and out.
Years 2023-2025 will be most active
As discussed below, the aurora borealis and aurora australis are directly related to solar activity. The activity of the sun comes and goes in an 11-year cycle, with the last cycle peaking out in 2012. The next solar cycle peak will occur in 2023-2025, and are anticipated to be the best years to hunt the elusive lights in the near future.
What are the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis)?
The aurora borealis and aurora australis are active 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. However, the ability to view them from the Earth depends on the amount of light in the night sky, and the amount of activity on the surface of the sun.
Both the northern and southern lights are created by the interaction and ionization of the atmosphere by cosmic radiation from the sun. To truly understand this natural phenomenon, it’s important to take a look at how they are created.
What causes the Aurora Australis?
For the aurora borealis and aurora australis to be visible, we need interaction between the poles and cosmic radiation. We get this radiation as a result of solar flares (coronal mass ejections) on the sun’s surface, which send streams of highly charged particles barreling through space towards Earth.
As these particles interact with the magnetic field of the planet, they create an ionization within the atmosphere. It is this interaction of solar particles with the Earth’s magnetic field that causes the Northern Lights Aurora Borealis and Southern Lights Aurora Australis.
All of this occurs in the atmosphere, more than 100 km above the surface of the planet. The streams of light radiate outward from the center of the planet toward space and can extend thousands of kilometers above the planet’s surface.
The sun follows a cycle of geomagnetic storms that peak every 11 or so years. When the Solar Cycle is at its peak, the amount of solar flares that are produced on a regular basis is also increased. As a result, more radiation is sent into space, which results in an increase in auroras.
While the auroras can be viewed at any time of the year, and at any point during the cycle, they are most active at their peak. To learn more about Solar Cycles and the best years to see the auroras, read our article here.
What does the Aurora Australis look like?
The appearance of the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis are very similar, and no two auroras are exactly alike. Just like a snowflake falling in the winter sky, no two auroras ever appear the same. Not only do they change in shape, size, pattern, color, and intensity, but they are also very different depending on the vantage point from which they are viewed.
It was once thought that the southern lights were mirrored copies of the northern lights, and appeared at the same time. However, a recent study from 2009 showed that they appear different from each other, mainly due to the tilt of the earth. The scientific phenomenon that causes both auroras is exactly the same, regardless of whether it is at the north pole or south pole.
When it comes to explaining what the auroras look like to someone who has never had the opportunity to view them in person, the first thing that comes to mind is a fluorescent light bulb. Similar to the Earth’s atmosphere, the bulb is filled with inert gas, and electricity is applied to each end. The power ionizes the gas within the fluorescent tube, causing it to light up.
If the ballast or transformer that powers the fluorescent lightbulb starts to fail, then the light dances along the length of the tube and you can see bursts of lights travel from one end of the tube to the other. Unlike a fluorescent lightbulb, the auroras do not move or dance quickly. Instead, it is a slow-moving wave of light and colors in the sky that appear and disappear in front of your eyes.
Colors of the Auroras
The colors of the auroras are not so much dependent on the amount of solar radiation, but rather are dependent on the amount and types of gases that are available in the upper atmosphere.
GREEN. The most commonly viewed color within the auroras is green. One most abundant gases in our atmosphere is oxygen. When cosmic radiation interacts with the magnetic poles of the planet, they ionize the atmosphere which causes it to light up. The color green represents the oxygen found at the lower levels of the atmosphere.
RED. On the opposite of the spectrum, we have red. The red lights occur far less than the green ones and only takes place at the upper levels of the atmosphere. The red color is also a direct result of oxygen in the atmosphere. However, due to the lower density of oxygen at higher altitudes, it takes more energy to charge the particles, making them rarer than green.
BLUE, PURPLE. Blues, purples and various tints of red are often viewed only at the fringes of the lights, and only at lower altitudes. The gas that is responsible for creating this bluish-purple color, is nitrogen. The closer we get to the surface of the planet, the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere increases. At sea level, roughly 78% of the breathable air is composed entirely of nitrogen.
Both hydrogen and helium in the atmosphere can also create blue and purple colors in the auroras, but they are very dim. The human eye is not really capable of picking up these colors, as they tend to fade into the dark backdrop of space. The only way to truly enjoy the full-color spectrum of the auroras is with the help of a properly set up camera.
If you are interested in seen the Southern Lights aurora, we hope this guide has helped you get started with your exploration. While the aurora borealis and aurora australis are basically the same phenomenon, on opposite sides of the world, the aurora australis is more challenging to see due to less accessible land near the south pole to view the lights from.
So, where can you see the Southern Lights aurora?
The best places where you can see the Southern Lights from are limited to:
- Antarctica (difficult to access)
- Ushuaia, Argentina
- Tasmania, Australia
- New Zealand – South Island
- South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
Like the aurora borealis there is no guarantee you will see the aurora australis on your trip, and that is probably even truer for the Southern Lights Aurora Australis. The honest truth is that you will have a much harder time trying to spot the Southern Lights than the Northern Lights.
Unlike the Northern Lights, hunting for the Southern Lights Aurora Australis is a much more low-key and less touristy affair. Do not expect to find many tour options or much information about the phenomenon, as it is simply less popular and less documented than the aurora borealis.
I have lived in Australia my whole life and visited Tasmania a couple of times, and most locals do not talk about or even know about the Southern Lights aurora. Unless you plan your trip and tours very carefully in advance, or make contact with some niche aurora viewing groups, there is a good chance you will be left on your own to search for the elusive aurora australis.
If you’re willing to take the chance, make sure to download a good aurora viewing app to help with your mission, keep your eye on the forecast, and make sure you travel at the right time of year as discussed above and on the years with the most solar activity.
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