The view from the back of a van with the windows opened; the ocean and christmas lights hanging around the van

What Are The Southern Lights? Everything You Need to Know

It’s something millions of people dream about: settling in for a night of stargazing, looking up, and seeing striking shades of green, blue, and purple dancing along the night sky. Plenty of people have heard of the northern lights, but are less familiar with their cousin to the south: Aurora Australis, or the southern lights. What are they? What’s the difference between the northern and southern lights? We’re here to answer all your questions and much more.

What are the southern lights?

The southern lights are a natural phenomenon found in the Southern Hemisphere, especially closer to the South Pole. They are caused when the Sun drives solar wind away from itself, causing high-energy particles to strike the Earth’s magnetic field. When these particles collide with oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, they produce red or green light; when they collide with nitrogen, the light produced is green and purple.

While the same process occurs to create the northern lights, the lights differ depending on where you are. Some places see bold shades of purple, and other deep, barely-noticeable green. It’s difficult to determine exactly where which colours will be seen, and how visible they’ll be if they appear, but the southern lights, when seen, are absolutely unforgettable.

The southern lights
The southern lights are one of the most incredible sights in the world! | © Andrew Sparrow/Flickr

How are the southern lights different from the northern lights?

The short answer is: they aren’t! The southern lights and the northern lights are caused by the exact same natural phenomenon, and their only main difference is location. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to choosing to go looking for the southern lights instead of their northern counterpart!

First and foremost, the southern lights aren’t as well-known as the northern lights. That means many of the best viewing points won’t be as crowded as similar spots in the northern hemisphere might be. It’s also important to remember that, if you’re more familiar with the northern hemisphere, you’ll find that the seasons are reversed; winter, the best time to see the Southern Lights, takes place from March to September.

Best places to see the Southern Lights

Queenstown, New Zealand

If you’re looking for some incredible views day and night, you’ll find them in Queenstown. Settled against the country’s Southern Alps and on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, visitors can enjoy thrills such as bungee jumping in the summer and skiing in the winter. They don’t call themselves the “adventure capital of New Zealand” for nothing! For a truly incredible experience, try sleeping outside; imagine laying in a sleeping bag, looking up, and seeing the southern lights?

A lake surrounded by mountains in Queenstown, New Zealand
Just one of the gorgeous views in Queenstown | © Max Lawton/Unsplash

Falkland Islands

These remote islands in the Southern Pacific Ocean are more than 8,000 miles from the United Kingdom, but they remain a British territory! Here, you’ll find native species such as penguins, whales, and seals, stunning coastlines, British comfort food, and, of course, plenty of opportunities to spot the southern lights! The Falkland Islands are often a port of call on Antarctic cruises, so you may be able to experience more than one destination when you visit.

a flock of penguins in the Falkland Islands
Chances are, your visit to the Falklands will include penguins! | © Yuriy Rzhemovskiy

Antarctica

For travellers looking to truly do it all, Antarctica is the best place to see the southern lights. Not only will you enjoy one of the last completely light-free areas in the world, you’ll rub elbows (or wings!) with penguins, kayak amongst massive icebergs, and visit the least-visited continent. Antarctica is only accessible through certain reputable tour agencies and cruise lines, so make sure to do your research before deciding on your trip. Note: Antarctic cruises do not run during the winter, so visitors may not be able to see the lights as clearly as they may in other locations.

Three killer whales surfacing in search for food in antarctica
Just some of the incredible wildlife you can see in Antarctica | © Bryan Goff/Unsplash

Ushuaia, Argentina

Can’t quite make it to Antarctica? Ushuaia is the next best thing – and an amazing destination in its own right. This town in Argentina, nicknamed “The End of the World,” is the gateway to Antarctica. Exploring Ushuaia means learning about maritime history in one of their several museums, scuba diving amongst king crabs, and some incredible skiing. Outdoor activities are plentiful, as are the opportunities to view the southern lights.

A lighthouse in the ocean in Ushuaia, Argentina
Ushuaia is referred to as “The End of the World.” | © Dennis Fidalgo/Unsplash

Tasmania

If national parks are your thing, you absolutely must check a visit to Tasmania off your list! This isolated island off the south coast of Australia is filled with open-air museums and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Nature lovers, take note: about 42% of Tasmania is protected land! Visitors can enjoy hiking trails, rafting, kayaking amongst native seal species, surfing, and countless other outdoor activities. If that wasn’t amazing enough, Tasmania is also a fantastic place to view the southern lights.

The view from the back of a van with the windows opened; the ocean and christmas lights hanging around the van
Camping in Tasmania can be absolutely beautiful | © Manuel Meurisse/Unsplash

Best times to see the southern lights

The good news is, auroras can occur year-round! The bad news, however, is they’re almost impossible to predict, so even the most carefully-planned trips may not result in a viewing. Of course, when you’re travelling to the incredible places where the southern lights can be seen, no trip is wasted!

The best time to see the southern lights, however, is in the winter, which lasts from March to September, at around midnight. The darker the sky, the better, since some auroras can be extremely faint and unnoticeable at first.

Viewing the southern lights is the kind of bucket-list experience you’ll be talking about for years and years to come. While it can be difficult to organize a trip to these remote corners of the world, and there are no guarantees when it comes to the Southern Lights, it’s always worth trying!

Have you ever seen the southern lights? Tell us about it!

Maggie is a life-long traveller who, after three years abroad, has returned home to Toronto, where she works as a Content Editor at TourRadar. When she's not reading, writing, or dreaming about her next trip, she can usually be found cooing over other people's dogs or hunting down Mexican food.

A group of people stand under Skógafoss in Iceland with the Northern Lights above
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