March 13, 2019

The Truth About Chasing the Southern Aurora Australis

Aurora Australis Tasmania Australia

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Aurora Borealis and seen magnificent photos of it from countries close to the North Pole…but did you know there’s a Southern Aurora, too? Yep, known as the Aurora Australis, it can be seen in places like Tasmania and the South Island of New Zealand (and, if it’s a really strong one, sometimes even on the mainland of Australia!). While the colors tend to be more vivid for the Aurora Borealis, and you can oftentimes see ribbons of light dancing above, it’ simply because of latitude and being that much closer to the North Pole than the land masses down in the South (not including Antarctica).

It’s always been on our dream list of things we want to experience…and we have a feeling you might want to experience seeing an aurora as well! So, we want to address some of the questions we frequently see about viewing it: Will there be an aurora tonight? I’m coming to Tasmania in X, Y, Z month—will I see one then? When’s the best time of year to see one? 

Well, we’ve got some answers for you! We’re talking about what you’re looking for, all the things that impact the aurora, best camera settings to capture it, apps you can check, optimal viewing spots…and just what causes an aurora. Now, let’s get to the guide!

When + Where?

Bicheno Beach Tasmania

When should I plan my trip to Tasmania (or New Zealand) to see it? Will there be an aurora tonight? We see these questions ALL the time, and the short answer is there is no best time to see an aurora and you can’t really predict it—it’s sort of like predicting an earthquake, while there are some indicators that one might happen soon, you can’t pinpoint exactly when it will occur…all you can do is be prepared.

The aurora can happen any time during the year, though because the nights are longer in winter—there’s more dark time to possibly see one…however, it’s also really cold. We’ve seen the aurora so far in spring, summer, and fall, in case you were wondering. Recent solar activity is key…it’s truly all up to the sun!

Will there be an aurora tonight? We went out aurora chasing just a few days ago when the ‘signs’ seemed good and there was a photo of a faint one coming in from New Zealand, but it ended up being so faint that we didn’t have any luck here in Tasmania. There are a few apps we like to check (more on those just a bit down), as well as several Facebook Groups for aurora chasers that are great resources. Check out this Aurora Australias Tasmania Facebook Group!

What You’re Looking For/Naked Eye Viewing

We don’t want to disappoint you, but oftentimes the aurora’s colors are only visible through a long exposure on a DSLR camera. However, if it is a rather strong aurora, it CAN be visible with the naked eye. In fact, for really strong aurorae—colors can even be seen in parts of mainland Australia.

If it’s not a super strong one, your best bet is to make sure you’re facing South, and have a view of the horizon. You *might* see a faint white light that resembles the light emitting from a nearby town…but if there’s no town in that direction, that’s a good indicator what you’re seeing is the aurora. Keep watching—it changes and shifts, sometimes beams of light will “dance” before your eyes and then quickly disappear.

Lunar Cycle

Lunar Cycle Full Moon Over Sandy Bay Hobart Tasmania

Where is the lunar cycle at? If it’s a full moon, there will be way more light than say a crescent moon—thus “dimming” your chances of seeing the aurora.

Consider the Weather

Sunset Clouds over Hobart Sandy Bay Tasmania Boats

What’s in store for the forecast? Will it be a clear night? If you go outside, look up and can see stars—that’s ideal! If clouds are rolling in or a storm is brewing, cloud cover can prevent the colors from shining through and lessen the aurora’s visibility.

Camera Settings + Editing

Our go-to settings are f/2.8, 15-25 second shutter speed, 2000-3200 ISO. We’re typically using a wider lens of 24mm, which allows us to capture more of the night sky. Also, the camera is set on manual mode (your camera will usually have difficulty focusing if you leave it on automatic, because it is so dark). We also turn our lens to the infinity symbol. Pro Tip: Add a slight delay (around 2 seconds should be good), so you can give yourself a buffer and prevent any shutter shake when you press the button. 

White balance is KEY to getting that blue night sky. If you don’t set your white balance in camera, you’ll want to do this in post…we find anywhere from 3200K-3800K gets those nice blue hues we’re after.

Almost every photo you see of the aurora will have some enhancing applied in post, to make the colors more vivid: remember that! We wanted to show you what a straight-from-camera photo of an aurora typically looks like:

Aurora Australis Tasmania Australia

This is f/2.8, 15 second exposure, ISO 3200, 3800K (white balance). Taken with a 24mm lens + Canon EOS 5D Mark III.

Gear to Bring with You

camping watercolor aurora gear

Here are the essentials:

  • DSLR camera + lens
  • Tripod + attachment for camera
  • Batteries
  • Memory cards
  • Flashlight(s)
  • Warm clothes
  • Snacks*

Apps to Check

Forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia (BOM) can be helpful, though even with predictions from them, there is no guarantee that a visible aurora will occur. You might see things with “kp” values, which are geared toward the Northern Hemisphere aurora—for the Southern one, “kaus” is a better guide.

We use several to get a feel/average for what a night might look like: Aurora Forecast, Aurora, Aurora Alerts. (Is there a best one? We haven’t fully decided.)

What’s the Optimal Viewing Spot?

Aurora Australis Tasmania Australia

Tasmania has great spots for viewing the aurora all over, you just have to make sure you find a dark place with the least amount of light pollution—so something away from the city: think hilltop, a beach, or a field. You MUST be facing South (you can use a compass or the compass app on your phone).

This map, shared with us through one of the aurora Facebook groups, gives great suggestions about optimal places to view it.

If at all possible, it’s best to figure out your viewing spot before an aurora actually occurs (I know this might not be possible for those that are road tripping up and down the coast or just stopping in Tassie for a spell). Please keep in mind that when it’s dark out, it can be quite dangerous to find a remote spot for the first time. Be mindful of your surroundings, of rocks, cliff edges, water, etc. Looking for a go-to spot that is easy to locate? Mount Nelson and Mount Wellington might be your best bet, but know that they both get significantly colder at the peak and there’s usually quite a bit of wind on top of Mount Wellington.

What Causes an Aurora?

While Dave may be in the sciences, even this is a tricky thing to explain…so rather, we’re drawing out the explanation behind the aurora in the simplest way we can—visual cues work well for us!

aurora explanation watercolor

What is it and where does it come from? It starts with the sun. The sun is so hot that its hydrogen atoms are squeezed together and make helium—this creates energy and light, which radiates out from the core.

The heat/light moves to the outer layers of the sun, making electrical fields of charged gas, which in turn, create magnetic fields inside the sun.

aurora explanation watercolor magnetic fields

In some places where the magnetic fields are super strong, they will push their way up through the surface. The electrically charged gas—plasma—drags the magnetic field out further, which causes the magnetic field to stretch and twist, before it ultimately breaks off.

plasma earth watercolor

This broken plasma is called a solar storm. It takes about ~18 hours to a couple of days for the solar storm to reach Earth.

plasma aurora explanation earth watercolor

Earth has an invisible shield—its own magnetic field— which deflects the solar storm. This, in turn, creates a funnel to the poles (North and South); the magnetic fields then keep stretching and gas from the solar storm goes to the other side of the Earth.

Thus, there can be both a daytime and nighttime aurora—the daylight just prevents us from seeing it. If you think about it as hot gas the sun is releasing, we’re extremely fascinated and wait in anticipation for “sun farts.” 😉

aurora earth watercolor

Active Alerts

Maybe you saw something about a solar flare or coronal hole facing Earth…don’t get too excited—this doesn’t mean there will be an aurora the same evening. They typically take a couple of days to reach the Earth. If all the things check off and there’s an expected aurora, the AlertNOW Group will keep updates on when one is sighted (during), and it will give the location of where it is being viewed from.

Sometimes you won’t see a thing, but the stars are brilliant, and searching together underneath the Milky Way is more than enough for us. Best of luck + we’d love to hear about your experience and see any photos you snapped—please share with us on the Culture Shoque Instagram or in the comments below! The world is truly a magnificent place, isn’t it?

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Culture Shoque is digital destination and channel designed to cultivate relationships in your community and while traveling. By breaking down barriers and xenophobia through the exploration of customs and food, the pursuit of joy, and environmental conservation, the goal is to show that at the core, we aren’t all that different. In fact, we all stem from similar roots. It’s time to nourish them and grow together. 

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