Chasing Tassie's Southern Lights
Many have made the pilgrimage to Norway and the like, to sit beneath the Arctic sky in hopeful wonder. But few realise its southern equal, the Aurora Australis, can be seen from Tasmania. I figure our hemisphere's ethereal dance show deserves an equal audience.
If you're like me, the Southern Lights have held intrigue. The first evening I received word of an Aurora, I bundled up two weary souls at midnight and drove to the countryside. We took many images, punctuated by suitable 'oooohs' and 'ahhhhs' until it dawned on us we were photographing a dimly-lit carrot farm in Tasmania's north-west. To sidestep a pseudo Aurora like us, we've talked to the experts and prepared a go-to guide so you have the best chance to see one. Because when you do, it's a dance you will never forget.
What are these vivid lights?
In brief, the Northern and Southern Lights have the same origin. Auroras occur when fully charged particles burst from the sun, creating a solar wind. This solar wind is drawn to the North and South poles, producing nature's finest light show. Don't expect to see a dancing rainbow with the naked eye though, you'll need a camera. According to Margaret Sonnemann, creator of the Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook group (50,000+ followers) and the Aurora Chaser's Handbook, you're unlikely to see any colour. "Our eyes are not designed to pick up colour at night. I saw my first aurora about 20 years ago and although I've seen bright colours, it is very rare" said Sonnerman.
When to see them
Winter is the ultimate time to witness nature's nightclub, as night falls earlier at this latitude. That said, the Southern Lights can be seen year round from Tasmania. No one knows precisely when a light show may occur. Space weather maps and predictions are helpful, but ultimately the sun decides. The Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook page is a great way to keep up with real-time sightings. There are apps like Star Walk, Solar Monitor, Aurora Forecast and Aurora Australis Forecast & Southern Lights Alerts and another Facebook group – Aurora Australis Tasmania Alert NOW. This is where watchers post up-to-the-second accounts of aurora sightings in Australia.
…Winter is the ultimate time to witness nature's nightclub
Where to go
In the dark of night, when there's whispers of a possible aurora, don't be surprised if you're not alone in unlit parking lots and remote beaches. Your best chance of witnessing an aurora is to be as far south as possible. That's why Tassie turf is a prime possie. New Zealand, Antarctica, Victoria and southern New South Wales can also deliver. "What many people don't realise is that you can see an aurora from anywhere in Tasmania. You just have to find an unobstructed view to the south," explains Sonnemann. "We've even had great photos from Hobart's CBD but ideally you should head away from light pollution."
Let's assume you're in Hobart. Find a location with a broad horizon, away from artificial light. The moon can also dim your aurora experience, so if possible keep an eye on the moon's phase. A great way to ensure you're looking in the correct direction is to look for the Southern Cross constellation.
In Hobart, a good starting point is to head up to Mount Nelson (where I saw my first Southern Lights). It's an easy ten-minute drive up the hill from the city, and usually attracts a small crowd of helpful onlookers. Mount Wellington is also popular but remember to rug up as the higher altitude and alpine winds can be chilly. South Arm Peninsula, about 40 kilometres south-east of Hobart, is popular with avid aurora hunters for its still bays, ideal for reflections. Other favourite spots include Rosny Hill, Howden, Dodges Ferry, Seven Mile, Tinderbox and even Cockle Creek (120km from Hobart) on Tasmania's far south tip. One can't drive any further south in Australia, so naturally it's a prime position for this southern marvel.
...One can't drive any further south in Australia
How to capture
This is the bit where those of us who stick to auto on our cameras need to get brave. First task, set your camera to manual. If you're serious about capturing a decent aurora image, you'll also need a tripod, an SLR camera and a remote so that there's no movement affecting your Southern Lights showstopper. The lens needs to be as wide as possible and same goes for aperture. This allows maximum light into the camera (lowest f-stop, around f/2.8 to f/4) is a good guide. Opt for your cameras highest ISO (800 to 3200 is a good starting point) and a shutter speed of anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds. Lastly, set your focus to infinity and you're set to capture the dance.
Irresistibly natural in front of the camera
Who's in the know
Hobart photographer Loic Le Guilly has a website dedicated to the Aurora Australis with tips and resources for photographing the night sky in Tasmania, www.auroraaustralistasmania.org. His work involves 360 degree captures of auroras. "I captured my first aurora in 2012, almost by chance, and I've been in love ever since. There's something exciting and magical about going out at night trying to capture the elusive aurora."
"We only know about three days in advance if an aurora might happen," adds Sonnemann, "but that's just an educated guess. We never truly know. One of the best I've seen was from Franklin, yet it was raining in Hobart. That's what makes social media so helpful, to know what is being seen in live time. It's exciting because we are able to inform the science. From Tasmania we are seeing phenomena they don't even have names for. Rays, beams and arcs rarely captured before." So off you go, into the night and see if you too can experience the Southern Lights. Sonnemann says everyone is affected differently – some cry, some shout with joy or dance a special dance. The question is…what will you do beneath the Southern Lights?
…We are seeing phenomena they don't even have names for
Here's a handy map of places where auroras have been spotted. You'll find it on Sonnemann's Facebook page under 'files'.
Alice Hansen - Tailored Tasmania