The Southern Lights

We all have heard about the Northern Lights.. but what about the Southern lights? Are they the same?

The Southern Lights, also known as the Aurora australis, is a natural light display in the sky; just like the northern or the polar lights, mostly seen in high-latitude regions (like the Arctic and Antarctic).

They are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind: When electrically charged solar particles precipitate into the upper atmosphere and collide with the atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere and gases like oxygen and nitrogen, it causes the emission of lights of different colors.

The form of the aurora depends on the amount of acceleration of the precipitating particles. In lower latitudes (like Oceania), protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere.

Southern Lights New Zealand

Differences between the two

We used to things that the auroras shimmer simultaneously in both regions, but scientists have recently discovered that’s not the case. The Earth generates a magnetic field, which curves outward from both poles, far beyond the atmosphere. This magnetosphere defends off charged particles hurtling toward us from space.

As we previously mention, The Auroras occur when charged particles from the sun break through the magnetosphere. The particles accelerate along Earth’s magnetic field toward the poles. When they hit the atmosphere; they collide with atoms and molecules, releasing colorful photons that create the lights we know as Southern or Northern Lights.

We used to think the light display were identical, but the sun, who has a powerful magnetic field, alters the path traced by the field lines, squashing the lines on our planet’s dayside facing the sun and elongating the lines on the nightside, creating a nonuniform magnetic tail. This tail is responsible for their differences (in color, shapes, etc).

Colors and wavelengths of Auroras

  • Red: In high altitudes, atomic oxygen has a lower concentration of atoms, emitting 630 nm (red color); only under more intense solar activity.
  • Green: At lower altitudes, the more frequent collisions suppress the 630 nm (red); allowing the 557.7 nm emission (green) to dominate. A fairly high concentration of atomic oxygen and higher eye sensitivity make the green auroras the most common. Red and green can also mix together to produce pink or yellow hues.
  • Blue: In lower altitudes, atomic oxygen is uncommon, and molecular nitrogen produces the most visible light emission, radiating with 428 nm (blue). Blue and purple emissions show the highest levels of solar activity.
  • Ultraviolet: Ultraviolet radiation from auroras has been observed with special equipment (Unfortunately not really visible to the human eye). Ultraviolet auroras have also been seen on Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
  • Yellow and pink are a mix of the previous aurora color. As red, green, and blue are the primary colors, technically any color might be possible.

Southern Lights New Zealand

When and where to see the Southern Lights

The key to see the Southern Lights (or any Aurora) is a dark sky and a pollution-free atmosphere. Skies are at their darkest in winter, and nights also last longer, increasing the chances to see these beauties. Fortunately, unlike the Northern Lights, there’s chance to see the Aurora Australis at any point in the year.

There are fewer places to see the Southern lights in comparison to the northern lights, and it can only be visible in certain regions of certain countries, like:

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