By: Heather Keys
The Southern Lights, otherwise referred to as the Aurora Australis, is an otherworldly spectacle of light that graces the skies of the southern hemisphere. Serving as the southern answer to the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, this celestial event unfolds in a dazzling array of colors.
As luck would have it, certain locations on our planet provide front-row seats to this cosmic performance.
Let’s embark on a journey to those places and discover the marvel that is the Southern Lights!
What Are the Southern Lights?
The beautiful displays of the Aurora Australis owe their existence to charged particles from the Sun interacting with Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. The Sun periodically discharges a torrent of charged particles, including electrons and protons. These emissions, which can happen during solar flares or coronal mass ejections, invariably contain particles that find their way toward Earth.
When these charged particles near our planet, they are steered by Earth’s magnetic field towards the polar regions. Here, the particles collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere, stirring them into a state that prompts them to give off light. The myriad hues in the aurora stem from the specific atomic or molecular species involved in these high-energy exchanges.
In the Southern Lights, green tends to be the dominant color, with occasional red, purple, and pink interspersions. The green results from oxygen atoms in the lower reaches of our atmosphere, whereas the reds are a manifestation of oxygen molecules situated at higher altitudes. The palette of colors observed in the aurora is influenced by the altitude at which these interactions occur and the prevailing atmospheric conditions.
The Southern Lights’ visibility and intensity are not static but fluctuate in response to several factors. These include the Sun’s activity, the strength of the solar wind, and the Earth’s magnetic field. Not surprisingly, the Southern Lights are most commonly sighted in areas nearer to Earth’s magnetic poles. These include Antarctica, parts of Australia, New Zealand, and other far-flung locales in the southern hemisphere.
When Can You See the Southern Lights?
The southern hemisphere’s winter months provide the perfect backdrop for viewing the Aurora Australis—the longer nights provide ample darkness, making the aurora more visible. The period of March through September, and particularly the months of June, July, and August, is considered optimal for viewing the Southern Lights.
During these months, the tilt of our planet and its orientation relative to the Sun create ideal conditions for aurora sightings. And during the peak of the solar cycle, which recurs about every 11 years, you can see more frequent and intense aurora displays—with the next peak coming in 2025. (You can still see the Southern Lights outside this period, though!)
Where Are the Best Places to See the Southern Lights?
Several locations across the globe serve as perfect viewing galleries for the Southern Lights. Let’s embark on a global tour to explore these coveted spots!
1: Tasmania, Australia
The island of Tasmania is truly a standout for Southern Lights viewing. Based in Australia’s southernmost region, Tasmania’s geographical positioning and modest light pollution make it a prime spot for watching this celestial display. Mount Wellington, a towering peak on the outskirts of Hobart, often acts as a lookout point, rewarding visitors with panoramic views of the lights’ luminous dance across the night sky.
2: South Island, New Zealand
New Zealand’s South Island is a treasure trove of natural beauty and an ideal location to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Australis. Prominent places such as Lake Tekapo and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park provide breathtaking backdrops for this spectacle. However, other areas of the island are equally enchanting. Queenstown, with its gorgeous lakes and mountains; and Stewart Island, the southernmost region of New Zealand, also offer vantage points to observe the Southern Lights’ brilliant hues.
3: The Falkland Islands
Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, the Falkland Islands offer an undisturbed environment that favors aurora viewing. With minimal light pollution and expansive open skies, the islands promise a truly immersive experience of the Southern Lights. Here, the vibrant display of the Aurora Australis often illuminates the night sky in a natural spectacle of unparalleled beauty.
4: The Patagonia Region of Argentina and Chile
The southern reaches of Argentina and Chile, notably Patagonia, boast some of the most favorable conditions for observing the Southern Lights. Ushuaia in Argentina, often termed as the “End of the World;” and Punta Arenas in Chile are renowned for their proximity to the South Pole, offering a higher likelihood of aurora sightings. The dramatic landscapes of these regions further enhance the ethereal beauty of the Southern Lights.
5: South Georgia Island
A remote destination in the southern Atlantic Ocean, South Georgia Island is another fantastic place for viewing the Aurora Australis. This isolated locale’s proximity to Antarctica heightens the chances of Southern Lights sightings. Coupled with the breathtaking landscapes it offers—vast glaciers, rugged mountains, and abundant wildlife—the experience of seeing the aurora here is simply unforgettable.
6: The South Shetland Islands
Based near the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands present another opportunity to experience the Southern Lights in a remote and pristine environment. An Antarctic cruise that includes a stop at these islands can provide unfiltered night sky views, setting the stage for unforgettable aurora sightings.
Related: The 3 Best Antarctica Cruises: Kayaking, Photography & More
7: The Southern Tip of South Africa
While the Southern Lights are less commonly witnessed from the southern regions of South Africa, locations such as Cape Agulhas and the Cape Peninsula have occasionally played host to this celestial spectacle. Even though these sightings are less frequent compared to more southern locales, the prospect of seeing the Southern Lights with the iconic African landscape as a backdrop is genuinely enticing.
For those with a taste for unique adventures, Antarctica stands as an unrivaled destination to witness the Southern Lights. Expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula and the surrounding regions during the Austral winter (March to September) can offer awe-inspiring views of the aurora, providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience amidst the icy wilderness.
Have you had the opportunity to see the Southern Lights—or their counterpart, the Northern Lights? Share your stories and advice with the Frayed Passport community!
Featured image by Ohan Smit on Wikimedia Commons