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Where to see the Aurora Australis in Melbourne

Aurora Australis
Photograph: Creative Commons

People bang on about the Northern Lights a lot, and who could blame them? The Aurora Borealis, a natural light display that happens in the Earth’s sky, is pretty spectacular. But you don’t have to head to Scandinavia to see this dramatic light display IRL. Australia has its own version, called the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights.

OK then, what gives? Why aren’t the Southern Lights as popular as the Northern Lights? Well, it’s got a lot to do with land. In the north around the Arctic Circle, you’ll be able to see the Aurora Borealis from Greenland, Iceland, northern Canada, Norway and Russia. But due to the location of land down south, there are fewer places that reach down low enough to Antarctica to offer good Southern Lights viewing spots – it’s mostly just water.

But if you’re not keen on stealing a ship and setting sail for the ocean past Tasmania, there are some less tricky viewing spots.

Your best chance at witnessing the Aurora Australis is to be as far south as possible. Tasmania is the obvious choice, and you’ll want to aim for places away from city lights. Mount Wellington, Bruny Island, Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, the Huon Valley, the Central Highlands and Tasmania’s South Arm all offer great horizon views down south.  

But it’s not all bad news for mainland dwellers: Victoria, southern New South Wales and the southernmost parts of South Australia and Western Australia are occasionally treated to an eyeful of lights. In Victoria, we’d suggest Point Lonsdale, Cape Schanck, Flinders, the south side of Phillip Island, Tidal River at Wilsons Promontory, Aireys Inlet, Anglesea or wherever there’s an uninterrupted horizon view. Closer to the city you can try the coast near Werribee South, Point Cook and up a hill in Meredith.

The Aurora Australis, like its northern sister, is very difficult to predict. Patience is key here. The best time of year to see the lights is around winter and the equinox in September, but you can theoretically see the Southern Lights from Tasmania all year round.

First, set your sights south: the Southern Lights always comes from the south. Victorian viewers are usually going to be seeing the "top" of the aurora that's seen in Tassie, but because it's faint it might only be visible on camera. 

Human eyes often can’t see the faint colour changes that happen during an aurora show, but DSLRs are better at picking these up so don't forget your camera. You might be able to see it without a camera, but only if the aurora is exceptionally bright. It also depends on your eyesight – for faint aurorae, some people can see tints of colour while others only see monochrome.

To keep track of it, this website has a few real-time maps of the atmosphere and gives an aurora prediction a Kp number, a measuring system that goes from zero to nine (zero being very weak and nine meaning strong auroras are visible). There’s also a Facebook group that discusses the Aurora over Tasmania, and another group that gives you current updates on when you can see the Southern Lights in Australia.

Seeing stars? Here’s where you can go stargazing in Melbourne.

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