The best places to see the southern lights
Seeing the northern lights in all its vibrant glory is nearing the top of many travelers’ bucket lists. But what many people don’t realize is that there is an incredible atmospheric light show in the Southern Hemisphere that is just as fascinating. Called the southern lights, or aurora australis, it is the southern relative of the northern lights and is best seen from the southernmost land masses such as Tasmania, New Zealand and Antarctica.
Like the northern lights, the southern lights occur when electrically charged solar particles and atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen, causing these gases to emit light. Polar lights occur in ovals around the planet’s two magnetic poles, so the farther north or south you are, the more likely you are to experience one of these spectacular light manifestations.
So, when is the best time to see one? While it’s hard to predict the exact moment when a southern light show will start, the Aurora Service website offers hourly predictions based on real-time solar wind data from NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft in orbit. Most southern light shows occur during the fall and winter months of the Southern Hemisphere, which stretch from March through September.
Here are four aurora australis hotspots for those looking for a southern sky spectacle.
Queenstown, New Zealand
Queenstown, New Zealand (chemc / iStock)
There are many places on New Zealand’s southern island that are time and time again hotspots for southern sky sightings, such as the town of Christchurch, the tiny village of Tekapo and Stewart Island off the country’s south coast. But so far this year, one place around the world has made headlines for the spectacular array of light shows that have occurred in the skies above: Queenstown. Located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, several times this year the city of 14,300 was flooded with a rainbow of lights as vibrant greens and rich reds danced across the night sky. In case you missed it, one of the glow hunters captured the show and created a slow motion video of it.
Mount Wellington, Tasmania
Mount Wellington, Tasmania (PhilKitt / iStock)
Ask any aurora hunter what the best place in Australia is to see the southern lights, and there’s a good chance he or she will point you to the continent’s southern island of Tasmania. The Australian Antarctic Division of the Department of Environment and Energy, an agency of the Australian government, estimates the odds of seeing a light in Tasmania on any clear night could be 1 to 2 percent, with the odds increasing near the equinox in late March and September. But one place people especially frequent is Mount Wellington, a mountain located in the backyard of Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. The higher you climb the 4,100-foot peak, the less likely your view is to be obstructed, making it the perfect front-row spot for a big nature event.
Victoria, Australia (Dannogan / iStock)
Outside of Tasmania, your best bet in Australia is to see the night sky explode in a riot of reds, greens and purples and blues in Victoria, located in the southeast corner of the continent. When conditions are right, Victoria’s 1,200-kilometer coastline includes thousands of beautiful spots where you can pull up a deck chair and watch the display dazzle the Bass Strait, the vast body of water that separates Tasmania from the mainland.
Antarctica and South Georgia Island
Aurora australis dances over an igloo in Antarctica. (NOAA Photo Library – Flickr / Creative Commons)
Very few people make it as far south as South Georgia Island or the snow-capped continent of Antarctica, especially in winter. But anyone who does get a chance to endure sub-zero temperatures and howling winds will be in for a treat that’s sure to make Instagram envy (once you get a reliable Wi-Fi signal, that is). Antarctica, which is the southernmost land region on the planet, is the most appropriate place to see the aurora in all its glorious beauty. The challenge is simply getting there. Because of the unfavorable winter climate, only research ships venture this far south in the middle of winter when Aurora conditions are best, but frequent sightings occur at the end of the cruise season in March, which is also a great time to spot humpbacks, sperm whales and orcas.