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aurora australis southern lights south arm tasmania feb 2021

Return of aurora “season”?

Last night we were blessed with stunningly clear skies and a nice little bit of aurora action, so I ventured out to South Arm where I have shot before, this time hoping maybe to land the bioluminescence and aurora double. As it turned out there was no bio but the aurora appeared as a very faint glow, and for a while some floodlit fishing boats (I assume) got in the way but nevertheless, the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds looked amazing and all in all it was a very pleasant shoot. Here are some of the shots 🙂

aurora australis southern lights south arm tasmania feb 2021

The aurora at South Arm last night with the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds

aurora australis southern lights south arm tasmania feb 2021

aurora australis southern lights south arm tasmania feb 2021

aurora australis southern lights south arm tasmania feb 2021

90 second flyby of some satellite. Captured with the Pentax K1 astro tracer function (to keep the stars as spots rather than trails)


aurora australis southern lights south arm tasmania feb 2021

Nice little bit of pink in this one 🙂

I get asked lots of questions about the aurora at Salamanca Market and during workshops, so thought I’d share a bit of the wisdom here for you as “aurora season” could very well be getting started again:

First of all – what do I mean by aurora season?

  • I am taking the long view of seasons here. I don’t mean autumn or spring, I am referring to the solar cycle. Simply put, the sun has its own cycle of high and low activity (referring to sunspot and solar flare activity basically). The cycle peaks and troughs over approximately 11 years, and both the peak and the trough extend for many years. The last few years has been solar minimum with a complete lull in solar activity ie not many sunspots and virtually no big solar flares. Late last year it appears the sun “woke up” and there were many sunspots and some flare activity again for the first time in ages indicating the new solar cycle is beginning, and we can expect more solar activity (including aurora) in the next few years – certainly more than we’ve seen in the last few years anyway!

What is the best time to see it?

  • the aurora can basically be seen anytime of year, and I personally have shot it in most calendar months
  • the winter months are better simply because the night is so long (especially in Tasmania) compared to the long sunny days of summer
  • there seems to be a somewhat higher chance of aurora occurring during the weeks around the equinox (ie late March and late September)

Can the aurora be predicted?

  • Yes and No. The aurora is caused by solar activity and no one can predict when any particular sunspot will appear and erupt, or any other particular event will occur on the sun, so there is no way to accurately forecast aurora in the long term. In the short term (ie after some kind of solar activity has already occurred) we get 2-3 days notice that an aurora is possible at which point we start keeping a close eye on things.

What signs do you watch for to know an aurora will happen/is happening?

  • Solar wind data on Space Weather websites and apps such as this or this. I watch in particular for the Bz value to drop significantly south (which is represented by negative values). If the Bz remains in negative values eg -10 or thereabouts for an extended period you have a very high chance of witnessing an aurora, and you need to get off the couch and out the door pronto 🙂

Do I run tours for the aurora?

  • Yes and No. As they cannot be predicted in advance it is impossible to advertise/promise the aurora on any photography tour. I do however select dates for my workshops that coincide with a new moon, meaning that *IF* an aurora were to occur we’d have beautiful dark skies to shoot it.

Hope this info helps in your own aurora chasing in the months and years ahead!

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About Luke

Luke O'Brien runs a stall at Hobart's popular Salamanca Market every Saturday where his prints and cards are available for purchase. Follow Luke's photographic adventures on Twitter at @lukeobrienphoto, at his Facebook page or by subscribing to his email newsletter.