The Best Places to See the Southern Lights

The aurora australis is the southern cousin to the northern lights

Aurora Australis seen over Lake Dunstan, New Zealand. (NCHANT/iStock)
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Seeing the northern lights in all their vivid glory nears the top of many travelers’ bucket lists. But what many people don't realize is that the Southern Hemisphere has an incredible atmospheric lightshow of its own that’s just as captivating. Called the southern lights, or aurora australis, it’s the southern cousin to the aurora borealis and can best be seen from the most southern of landmasses, such as Tasmania, New Zealand and Antarctica.

Just like the northern lights, the southern lights occur when electrically charged solar particles and atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere collide with gases like oxygen and nitrogen, causing those gases to emit light. Auroras happen in ovals around the planet’s two magnetic poles, which is why the farther north or south you’re located, the likelier you are to experience one of these impressive light displays. 

So when’s the best time to see one? While it’s difficult to predict the exact moment when a southern lightshow will begin, the website Aurora Service offers an hourly forecast based on real-time solar wind data procured from the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) a NASA spacecraft in orbit. Most southern lightshows occur during the Southern Hemisphere’s fall and winter months, which stretch from March through September.

Here are four aurora australis hotspots for those looking for a southern celestial spectacle. 

Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown, New Zealand (chemc/iStock)

There are a number of places on New Zealand’s South Island that have proven again and again to be hotbeds for spotting southern lights, such as the city of Christchurch, the tiny village of Lake Tekapo and Stewart Island off the country’s southern coast. But so far this year one location has made headlines worldwide for the breathtaking array of lightshows that have occurred in the skies above it: Queenstown. Located on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, on multiple occasions this year, the city of 14,300 has been awash in a rainbow of light as vibrant greens and rich reds danced across the night sky. If you missed it, one aurora hunter captured the show and created a time-lapse video of it.

Mount Wellington, Tasmania

Mount Wellington, Tasmania (PhilKitt/iStock)

Ask any aurora australis hunter what the best place in Australia is to see the southern lights, and chances are good that he or she would point you to the continent’s southern island of Tasmania.  The Australian Antarctic Division of the Department of the Environment and Energy, an agency of the Australian Government, estimates the probability of witnessing a light event in Tasmania on any given clear night to be between 1 and 2 percent, with the odds going up near the equinoxes in late March and September. But one spot in particular that those in the know frequent is Mount Wellington, a mountain located in the backyard of Tasmania’s capital city of Hobart. The higher up you ascend the 4,100-foot peak, the less likely your view will get obstructed, making it the perfect front-row seat for nature’s big event.

Victoria, Australia

Victoria, Australia (dannogan/iStock)

Outside of Tasmania, your best bet in Australia for seeing the night sky explode in a riot of reds and greens and swirls of purples and blues is in the state of Victoria, located in the continent’s southeastern corner. When conditions are right, Victoria's 1,200 miles of coastline include thousands of perfect spots to pull up a beach chair and watch the display dazzle over the Bass Strait, the massive body of water that separates Tasmania from the mainland. 

Antarctica & South Georgia Island

Aurora australis dancing over an LED illuminated igloo in Antarctica. (NOAA Photo Library - Flickr/Creative Commons)

Very few people make it as far south as South Georgia Island or the snow-coated continent of Antarctica, particularly in winter. But anyone who does get the chance to brave the below-zero temperatures and howling winds will be in for a treat that will no doubt induce Instagram envy (once you get a solid Wi-Fi signal, that is). Being the most southerly chunk of landmass on the planet, Antarctica is the quintessential spot for viewing the aurora australis in all its brilliant glory. The challenge is just getting there. Because of the inhospitable winter climate, only research vessels venture this far south in the dead of winter when aurora conditions are best, but frequent sightings do occur during the end of the cruise season in March, which also happens to be a great time for spotting humpback, sperm and killer whales. 

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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