The Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, has been recognized as one of the most important and spectacular natural wonders of the Arctic Circle for generations. Many humans have observed the Northern Lights throughout the millennia, creating myths and legends related to its appearance, and through the miracle of modern technology, tourists from around the world can now visit the Arctic Circle and view auroras for themselves.
In addition to appearing in the Arctic, auroras are also common in Antarctica, where they are known as aurora australis or the Southern Lights. Read on to learn about aurora australis and what, if anything, separates it from the Northern Lights.
Aurora Borealis vs. Aurora Australis
Thanks to scientific studies, we now know that auroras occur at both the North and South Poles. This is due to the fact that auroras are generated by solar wind, the term used for the streams of particles emitted by the sun on a regular basis. Solar wind contains radiation and is deadly to humans, but the Earth’s magnetosphere, a protective barrier generated by the planet’s magnetic field, deflects or defuses solar wind before it can impact Earth’s surface.
Most of the magnetosphere is located in outer space, but because it is created by the planet’s magnetic field, the magnetosphere intersects with the atmosphere at the North and South Poles, the source of Earth’s magnetic field. When solar wind impacts the magnetosphere in these locations, it interacts with atmospheric particles, creating a chemical reaction that is visible in the form of an aurora.
Auroras in the southern hemisphere are functionally no different than the auroras visible in the Arctic, being caused by the same factors and manifesting in the same ways. However, due to the fact that Antarctica is both remote and uninhabited, the aurora australis was not as well-known as the aurora borealis until relatively recently. The only peoples who observed the aurora australis with any regularity were the aborigines of Australia, who mythologized that auroras were caused by their gods dancing in the sky.
Antarctica remained unknown and unexplored by Europeans until the 19th century due to both its faraway location and the difficulty of traveling there. Much of the South Pacific is filled with treacherous sea ice, which made sea exploration difficult or impossible prior to the invention of icebreaker vessels. Additionally, survival in Antarctica is extremely difficult due to the cold climate and lack of available resources. Antarctica is actually much colder than the Arctic because it is largely made of land and insulated from moderating ocean currents; the Arctic, in comparison, is largely made of sea ice.
Additionally, the southern hemisphere in general has less land than the northern hemisphere, making Antarctic exploration even more costly and dangerous. While the Arctic itself is mostly ice, the Arctic Circle intersects the continents of North America, Europe, and Asia, allowing for human habitation and jumping-off points for exploration. The Antarctic Circle is almost entirely contained within Antarctica itself, with the closest continents, South America and Australia, being some distance away.
It is largely because of these factors that the outside world did not get to observe the aurora australis until relatively recently. Even today, Antarctica has no human residents aside from scientists sent by various countries around the world. Under international law, Antarctica is recognized as a condominium, managed by multiple countries and claimed exclusively by none. International law also prohibits Antarctica from being used for military operations, resource extraction, or waste dumping, which further inhibits permanent habitation due to a lack of economic incentive.
While some tourists do visit Antarctica to witness the aurora australis, the lack of permanent settlements on the continent make traveling there considerably more costly and dangerous than visiting the Arctic. With no infrastructure to support tourism, a more treacherous climate than the Arctic, and a greater distance from civilization, Antarctic trips are a major undertaking and are not safe for casual travelers.
On rare occasions, the aurora australis can be observed from southerly latitudes in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile. However, because these countries are located well outside the Antarctic Circle, auroras in these places do not occur on any predictable timetable. Additionally, due to the Earth’s axial tilt, the aurora australis and aurora borealis do not occur simultaneously. Auroras can only occur during winter, early spring, and late autumn, and because only one pole is facing the sun at any given time, the seasons occur at different times of the year in each location. Prime aurora australis viewing season in Antarctica is from late March to early September; the reverse is true for aurora borealis.
Thanks to modern science and the efforts of explorers, we now know that auroras occur at both the North and South Poles. However, due to Antarctica’s distant location, lack of permanent habitation, and extremely cold climate, comparatively few people journey there to witness the aurora australis, compared to those who have seen the aurora borealis. While traveling to Antarctica is possible, the extreme conditions of the continent limit Antarctic trips to those who have the know-how to survive there and the courage to endure severe environments.