The Northern Lights are widely recognized as one of the most significant natural attractions of the Arctic Circle. For generations, humans have observed auroras and spun myths and legends around them, and thanks to modern technology, tourists from around the world can now journey to the Arctic and view the Northern Lights for themselves. Given that the Northern Lights occur around the North Pole, that begs the question: do the Northern Lights also occur in Antarctica?
The answer is yes, though they are not referred to as the “Northern Lights.” Auroras occur around both the North and South Poles, but auroras that occur in the southern hemisphere don’t get much attention for various reasons. Read on to learn about auroras in Antarctica.
Do the Northern Lights Occur in Antarctica?
Auroras occur in and around the North and South Poles because these are the two points where the magnetosphere intersects with Earth’s atmosphere. The magnetosphere is a protective barrier generated by the Earth’s magnetic field, which emanates from the North and South Poles. Much of the magnetosphere extends into outer space, but it converges with the atmosphere at the poles, which is why auroras are generally only visible there.
Auroras that occur in the northern hemisphere are known as aurora borealis, while auroras that occur in the southern hemisphere are known as aurora australis. They are also called the Southern Lighrts (in contrast with the Northern Lights, the term used for northern hemisphere auroras), though this nickname is less commonly used. Auroras in Antarctica are no different than auroras in the Arctic, but are less well-known—and observed less often by humans—for a number of reasons.
The first reason why auroras in Antarctica are less commonly observed by humans is a simple one: lack of population. Antarctica is unique in that it is the only continent that is not natively inhabited by humans, due to its remote location, extreme climate, and lack of resources. Reaching Antarctica requires humans to embark on dangerous sea journeys through the South Pacific, which is clogged with ice much of the year. When they get there, they must endure some of the coldest temperatures in the world; indeed, Antarctica is actually much colder than the Arctic due to the fact that it is mostly land and is insulated from the moderating ocean currents that affect the Arctic.
In contrast, the Arctic has been inhabited by humans continuously for generations. While the population of the Arctic is small, groups such as the Inuit and Aleut have lived in the North American Arctic for millennia. In addition, the Arctic Circle intersects several European countries, including Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. A number of Arctic cities, such as Murmansk in Russia and Tromsø in Norway, have warmer, more moderate weather than their locations would suggest, making them ideal aurora viewing locations.
Even to this day, the only residents of Antarctica are scientists sent by various countries on observation missions. This means that there is no infrastructure in place to support aurora tourism. Antarctica is regarded as a condominium under international law, meaning that multiple countries are free to use it and all are prohibited from engaging in military activity, economic development, or other activities that would facilitate large-scale settlement and colonization.
Another reason why auroras in Antarctica are ignored compared to Arctic auroras is because there is less land in the southern hemisphere in general. While the Arctic proper is mostly sea ice, the northernmost regions of North America and Eurasia intersect with the Arctic Circle, providing safe locations for aurora viewing. As mentioned above, the Arctic also has a history of continuous human settlement, facilitating aurora watching.
In contrast, Antarctica is located a great distance away from any habitable landmasses. The two southernmost continents, Australia and South America, are both located well outside the Antarctic Circle. This means that one cannot go to the southernmost tips of these continents and reliably view auroras, as they can by going to the northernmost tips of North America, Europe, and Asia. While auroras have occasionally been sighted in Australia, New Zealand, and the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina and Chile, they are rare.
Finally, the distant location of Antarctica relative to human civilization combined with the treacherous weather conditions there make traveling to the continent as a tourist cost-prohibitive for most. Lacking permanent human inhabitants, Antarctica accordingly lacks the infrastructure necessary to support any kind of tourism industry. While some tourists do visit Antarctica, they are small in number and dwarfed by those who go to the Arctic.
The Northern Lights is not a phenomenon limited to the Arctic Circle; visitors to Antarctica during the winter will also be regaled by the beauty of auroras. However, Antarctica’s cold, treacherous climate, lack of human habitation, and distance from the rest of the world make visiting there a difficult and expensive undertaking. It is because of this that auroras that occur in the southern hemisphere get far less attention than their Arctic counterparts, despite occurring with the same regularity. While there is nothing stopping you from going to Antarctica to view auroras, know that doing so is a far more expensive and dangerous undertaking than going to the Arctic Circle.