Southern Glow: Familiar with the Aurora Australis?

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Move aside Southern Lights! The new arrival on the scene – Aurora Australis – is precisely the sort of splendor you’d want to include on your travel must-see list.

Australis aurora at the Church of the Good Shepherd near Lake Tekapo in New Zealand

While the Southern Lights are undoubtedly a must-see for many travelers, they aren’t the only awe-inspiring light spectacle on Earth. Aurora Australis, the less renowned sibling of the Northern Lights, is equally as stunning.

However, before you add it to your travel bucket list for the year, take a moment to learn more about this phenomenon and the top destinations to witness the Aurora Australis.

What constitutes the Southern Lights and the Northern Lights?

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An aurora is a natural occurrence in the extreme latitudes of the Arctic Circle (Aurora Borealis) or the Antarctic Circle (Aurora Australis) that gives rise to vibrant displays of light in the sky.

Aurora Australis photographed from the summit of Mount Wellington in Tasmania

How are auroras formed?

Charged particles discharged from the sun during a solar flare breach the Earth’s magnetic shield, colliding with atmospheric atoms, ultimately resulting in numerous bursts of light (photons) manifesting as auroras. These formations materialize between 100 and 300 km above the planet’s surface.

What is another term for the Northern Lights?

The phrase Northern Lights is used to refer to the Aurora Borealis.

What is another term for the Southern Lights?

The phrase Southern Lights is employed to describe the Aurora Australis.

What variations exist in the shapes and hues of these luminous displays?

Auroras appear in a multitude of shades – rose, verdant, citrine, azure, violet, and occasionally tangerine and ivory. Moreover, there are six principal classifications for their shapes – drapes, bands, veils, halos, patches, and beams.

Where can you catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights?

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The spectacular aurora australis captured from Casey Station in the Antarctica

1. Antarctica

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The finest location to witness the Southern Lights is the continent of Antarctica itself. The southern lights are most impressive, most active, and most visible here; particularly during the months of March to September.

Auroa Australis over the base camps in Antarctica

However, along with the best views come certain difficulties. The means to access the continent during winters are extremely costly and even perilous. The temperatures plunge as low as – 50° C. Fierce gales and hazardous ice formations are what define the winter landscape of the area. But those who can muster the strength and the funds to be here in winters are guaranteed to experience a remarkable light exhibition in the finest location to witness Aurora Australis.

Optimal time to visit: Antarctic winter, i.e between March and September

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2. South Georgia Island

One of the southernmost islands in the world, South Georgia finds itself enclosed by ice for a significant portion of the year. However, the island situated to the southeast of Argentina can be easily reached during the months of March to September. Polar cruises are the most popular methods of accessing the island.

Katabatic winds encroach on St. Andrews Bay on South Georgia

The Antarctic winter commencing in March provides dark skies that are ideal for observing the southern lights. However, departing from this island with no permanent inhabitants after March is simply too hazardous.

Location: South Atlantic Ocean in the South Sandwich Islands

Optimal time to visit: Antarctic winter, i.e between March and September

3. Ushuaia

Situated in the far south of Argentina, Ushuaia is perfect for witnessing the Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights. Despite its southern location, it requires a considerable amount of luck to merely catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights from Ushuaia, and the inclement weather of the city is to be held accountable. The persistent cloud cover makes it impossible to see the Aurora even if the sky illuminates.

A night view of boats in the harbor at Ushuaia

The city possesses its very own airport. Thus, reaching Ushuaia ought not to present a difficulty. And to increase the likelihood of observing the Aurora, attempt venturing towards a more secluded location nearby to avoid any illumination contamination.

Location: Southernmost metropolis in the world, Argentina

Optimum time to visit: Antarctic winter, specifically between March and September

King Penguins in the Falkland Islands

4. Falkland Islands

The lesser-known Falkland Islands are the dwelling place of around 2,500 individuals and showcase remarkable splendor and a wide array of fauna – penguins, elephant seals, and much more. The island’s significance for the Aurorae is evident from the reality that a monitoring system here has been meticulously recording the activity of the southern lights since 2010.

With a plethora of lodging alternatives and air & sea connectivity, the Falklands islands make for a marvelous vacation destination. Additionally, the darkest months of April to August heighten the chances of witnessing the lights in the heavens.

Location: Approximately 400 miles off the Argentine coastline, South Atlantic Ocean

Optimum time to visit: The darkest months, specifically between April and August

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5. Stewart Island

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Stewart Island is the nearest you’ll come to the South Pole, aside from Antarctica. Its Rakiura National Park literally signifies the land of the gleaming skies. The extended periods of darkness in winters, combined with the scarce populace and the minimal levels of light contamination, enhance the view of Aurora Australis.

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Location: Southern edge of New Zealand

Auroa Australis over Steward Island in New Zealand

Optimal time to visit: Antarctic winter, that is from March to September

Where to witness Southern Lights in New Zealand apart from Stewart Island?

Lake Tekapo & Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, within the dark sky reserve (locations with the darkest skies worldwide), Invercargill, Dunedin, and Catlins are other spots to observe Southern Lights in New Zealand.

Suggested Reading: 24 Renowned New Zealand Tourist Attractions That One Should Explore In 2022

6. Hobart

The capital and the most densely populated city of the Australian island state of Tasmania is a popular spot to see Southern Lights. However, sizable mountains, trees, and light contamination from the city frequently obstruct the beautiful Aurorae. Consequently, neighboring locations such as South Arm Peninsula, Dodges Ferry, and Cockle Creek are often preferred for observing the southern lights in Australia.

Aurora Australis lighting up the sky above the Church of Good Shepherd

Location: Tasmania island, Tasmania sea, southern edge of Australia

Optimal time to visit: Antarctic winter, that is from March to September

Beams of Aurora Australis over Cremorne Beach at Hobart

Where to witness Southern Lights in Australia apart from Hobart?

Ararat in Victoria and Howrah, Seven Mile Beach, Dodges Ferry, Cockle Creek, Bridestowe Lavender Estate, Cradle Mountain, Eaglehawk Neck, & Melaleuca in Tasmania are the finest spots to see Southern Lights in Australia.

Suggested Reading: Australia Through 20 Breathtaking Pictures

How does an Aurora Borealis vary from an Aurora Australis?

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i. Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis are luminous phenomena of the northern and southern hemispheres respectively.

Named after the north wind [Borealis: north wind in Greek], Aurora Borealis or the northern lights are observed in the high latitude Arctic region of the Northern Hemisphere. Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Northern Russia, and Northern Scandinavia are the optimal locations to witness the Northern Lights.

A shot of the Aurora Australis at Lake Pedder in Tasmania

Aurora Australis [Australis: south in Latin] or the southern lights are observed in the high latitude region of the Southern Hemisphere.

ii. While the Northern Lights are best observed around daybreak, the optimal views of the Southern Lights can be expected around twilight.

These luminous phenomena ideally require the sky to be at its darkest. But further research has revealed that a couple of hours before sunrise and a couple right after sunset are the best times to witness the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis respectively.

iii. The optimal months for observing these phenomena differ.

It is easier to spot the Aurorae when the nights are the darkest and the longest; something that is common during winters. And so, while it is the Antarctic winter – March to September – that is mostly the best season to witness the Southern Lights, the prime months to see the Northern Lights are between November and March.

iv. It is easier to spot Aurora Borealis.

Perhaps the most apparent reason for the disparity in the popularity of the two Aurorae is that it is much simpler to spot the Northern Lights as compared to the Southern Lights.

Why is it challenging to see the Southern Lights?

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A shot of Aurora Australis and Paul Stringer in Antarctica

As they say, it is all about the land. A substantial portion of the area where Aurora Australis occurs is in Antarctica, which is a vast expanse of ice surrounded by waters and icebergs. It is arduous to reach there, and even more challenging during severe winters. In other regions, the terrain doesn’t always facilitate the viewing experience.

Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Northern Russia, and Northern Scandinavia, on the other hand, offer ample land with favorable topography for breathtaking views of the Northern Lights.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Plan an overseas vacation to these destinations to witness the finest of the Southern Lights.

Further Read: 25 Exquisite Photos That Will Inspire You To Travel

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