The Northern Lights get all the love when it comes to natural light phenomena but did you know Australia has its own light show – the Aurora Australis? The ‘Southern Lights’ experts tell Australian Traveller why you might want to consider Tasmania before you book your flight to Scandinavia, Canada… or Siberia.
Fifteen years ago Margaret Sonnemann was driving from Launceston to Hobart when she noticed something in the sky that made her pull over in shock.
This was Margaret’s first glimpse of the Southern Lights. Back then, there was no portal available to discuss this amazing natural phenomenon. Today her Facebook group, Aurora Australis Tasmania, has more than 15,000 members, but the fact that Tasmania just might be the best vantage spot in the world to view the Southern Lights remains largely unknown.
“Australians are so privileged to be able to see the Southern Lights,” Margaret said. We think so too. So here’s the why, how, when and where…
The Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, happens when the sun releases a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields into space, also known as CME (coronal mass ejections).
These solar winds carry particles which interact with earth’s magnetic field, colliding to produce energy releases in the form of auroras.
“Auroras are more frequent and brighter during the intense phase of the solar cycle when coronal mass ejections increase the intensity of the solar wind,” says Margaret Sonnemann, author of The Aurora Chaser’s Handbook.
Given that earth’s magnetic field is closest to its surface at the North and South poles, Antarctica and Tasmania are the best spots for seeing the Southern Lights given their close proximity to them.
What can you expect?
If you Google pictures of both the Southern and Northern lights you will see images of skies full of rich greens and vivid blues, or wild swirls of reds and purples. But often this is not what the naked eye can see.
“To the naked eye, an aurora will look more like a white flickering light,” says James Garlick (image 3) who has been photographing the Southern Lights for years, with one of his photos recently being featured on an Australian postage stamp. “It could be mistaken for a cloud. It’s not until you do a long exposure with the camera that the colours are revealed.”
Matt Glastonbury (image 1), another avid Southern Lights photographer, revels in the way they move through the night sky.
“They are like dancing curtains of light across the sky,” he says. “The size of them is incredible – beams of light are shooting right up into the atmosphere. It is really magical to see them moving around right in front of you.”
Best spots to see the lights?
In short, “all over Tasmania,” says Margaret Sonnemann.
The main obstructions to viewing the Southern Lights are large mountain ranges, trees and city (and light) pollution. There are, however, some places that photographers favour due to their landscape qualities.
Photographer Paul Fleming (image 2) prefers South Arm Peninsula, 40 kilometres south east of Hobart, for his Aurora views.
“There are lots of beaches and still, wide shallow bays. It’s a good spot for nice reflection shots with waves crashing in the foreground.”
Matt Glastonbury has two favourite spots: Dodges Ferry, about 40km east of Hobart, and Cockle Creek, on the southern tip of Tassie, 120km south-west of Hobart.
“Both of those places have little light pollution,” he says. “The less of that you get the better.”
When do the lights shine brightest?
Theoretically speaking the equinox (in September) should be the best time for viewing the Southern Lights, but this isn’t always the case. Since the Aurora is based on sunspots and massive bursts of solar winds, scientific predictions can be unreliable.
Unlike the Northern hemisphere, which is subject to extreme seasonal light changes, the Southern Lights can be viewed from Tasmania all year round. It is worth noting (and to some a tad obvious) that the lights can only really be seen at night time, therefore winter is ideal, given daylight savings in Tasmania can stretch the light until 10pm.
How to track them
For smart phone applications, Matt Glastonbury suggests Star Walk, an interactive astronomy guide.
Aurora Forecast has several real-time maps of the atmosphere and shows how much it is hitting the earth at any given time.
Spaceweather.com includes visual representation of plasma coming out of the sun.
As mentioned the Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook group is often how many photographers find the lights with members posting real-time alerts.
Where else can I see them?
Some parts of New Zealand, South America and Antarctica.