Aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights, might be famous, but you don’t have to travel all the way to the far reaches of Northern Hemisphere to see the shimmering beauty of this astrological phenomenon. You can see the Southern Lights, or aurora australis, right here in Victoria. Like its northern counterpart, this spectacular cosmic show occurs when high-energy particles from the sun collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. This produces splendid colours, like green, red and purple, that dance across the sky. While you’re more likely to spot aurora australis in Tasmania, there are times when you can spot it in Melbourne and Victoria.
When can you see aurora australis in Victoria?
Conditions for auroras are more likely when the sun is more active. The sun’s magnetic field goes through a cycle called the solar cycle. Every 11 years, this magnetic field flips, which affects activity on the sun’s surface. We’re leaving the start of the cycle, known as the solar minimum, and approaching the middle of the solar cycle, which is called the solar maximum. That’s when the sun has the most sunspots, and it’s a period of increased solar activity, like solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These coronal mass ejections throw out plasma at a high velocity, which interact with the Earth’s magnetic field to create stunning aurora displays.
You’re also likely to see auroras when there are coronal holes, which are darker regions on the sun with open magnetic fields. This open area allows high-speed solar wind to rush out into space. If a coronal hole is facing our planet, that solar wind will blast charged particles to Earth’s magnetosphere, which can also create auroras.
As we reach solar maximum, the chances of seeing aurora australis will increase. As you can only see it properly at night, you’ll also have better luck looking for auroras during the winter months, when the nights are longer. You’re also likely to see aurora australis during the September spring equinox, when our planet’s tilt aligns with its orbit around the sun, putting our magnetic field in a great position to receive charged particles.
What’s the best way to stay up-to-date?
We asked aurora enthusiast and photographer, Roger Bowker, for tips on chasing these glimmering lights. If you’re interested in the science of it all, he recommends Space Weather Live, which is a great place to keep track of solar and auroral activity in real time. They also have an app so you can keep track while you’re on the move.
You can also join Facebook groups, like Aurora Hunters Victoria, for local information.
“They’ve got a few people in there who will actually look ahead and study what’s happening with the sun and what’s happening with the solar winds,” said Bowker. “They’ll take some of the data that we get from satellites, which basically picks up some of that high flying plasma before it hits the Earth. It gives us about a 45 minute warning. I know that for most of us, 45 minutes is not enough time to get to where you need to get the photos. But it’s a good warning system to know that there’s something coming.”
Where are the best spots to see aurora australis?
As you might guess from the term Southern Lights, you need to look south, preferably out over the ocean where it’s dark and flat. You don’t want any light pollution to get in the way. Popular spots in Victoria include Flinders Blowhole, Cape Schanck, St Andrews Beach, Gunnamatta Beach, Kilcunda Bridge, Cape Paterson, Wilsons Promontory, Phillip Island, Aireys Inlet, Anglesea and Ninety Mile Beach. Closer to Melbourne, you might have luck at Rickett’s Point or the beach at Werribee South.
However, if you can’t make it to the coast, that’s ok! You can still see aurora inland, as long as there aren’t any obstructions like mountains, or any light pollution. Heathcote, for example, which is near the Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV) dark sky site, is a great place to try your luck. Just remember to look south.
You will also need to allow time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. This can range from ten to twenty minutes, depending on your age.
What your eyes see and what the cameras see will also look different. While you might be expecting vivid colours of greens and reds, the naked eye will more likely see moments of brightness, like a flickering white light. Cameras, which have a longer exposure, can pick up the colours to create the spectacular photos you’re more familiar with. When the particles interact with oxygen in our atmosphere, they give off a green and red light, whereas nitrogen creates gorgeous hues of blue and purple.
Roger Bowker has been a part of the Astronomical Society of Victoria for two years, but has been taking photos of aurora australis and other astronomical events for the last six or seven years.
For a start, he recommends using a tripod to keep your camera steady and a longer exposure to capture the lights. He uses a wide angle lens, shoots between 20 to 30 seconds depending on light conditions, and an ISO of 3200. Of course, it all depends on the type of camera you have, so definitely have a play around when you can.
Another tip is to remember to switch your camera to manual focus. “A lot of people try to go down there, and they won’t switch their lenses onto manual focus,” said Bowker. “There’s not enough light source for the camera to put its own focus down, so what ends up happening is you go down in the cold wet weather down the southern coastline, freeze your backside off, and come back and the camera’s not in focus! It’s not fun, and it’s something I’ve done before.”
When playing around with your settings, if you’ve got live view on your camera, find a bright object, like a ship in the horizon or a bright light on land, go to live view, zoom in, switch your focus to manual, focus it in and keep it on manual, so that when you switch back to shooting, it will keep that focus while you capture your incredible aurora australis pictures.
If this has inspired you, why don’t you consider joining the Astronomical Society of Victoria? You’ll be able to learn how to take photos of the aurora, nightscapes and other out-of-this-world objects with the help of their Astrophotography Section. Find out more here.