The Aurora Australis (Southern Lights)

One of the more amazing things that we got to experience while we were in Antarctica was seeing the Aurora Australis, or the Southern Lights, dance their way across the night sky above us. It was an unbelievable spectacle!

Here’s how it happened: Bev and I had to stay at work quite late one night, and though were a very tired after dinner we felt like we really needed a little bit of exercise (we hadn’t gotten much the couple weeks before that… and we really wanted to stretch out our muscles). We were in no mood to go to the gym. It was still WinFly, and the dark of night was quickly being overcome by the summer sun, so instead we decided to go for a hike out to Hut Point to see the stars. The hike out to Hut Point is only about a mile or so, and it’s the only place close enough that we could hike to without having to check out with the fire department (and then check back in after our return). Also, if you all recall, the historic Discovery Hut is located out here (“Hut” Point), which makes it a pretty awesome place to visit any time. We got a late start on hiking so it was already quite dark and cold, but the wind was calm and there was not a visible cloud in the sky. As we hiked away from the station we slowed down to look up at the stars and see the Milky Way slowly starting to become more visible, and when we were about half way to Hut Point Bev noticed that there were some strange foggy-looking streaks and patches in the sky, and from behind one of the hills it looked like a faint spotlight was shining upward. We kept walking, looking at the sky, and Bev pointed out that outside of the main station area there SHOULDN’T be any lights that bright, which lead to the question about what the Southern Lights might look like… and that’s when we realized that we were actually looking at them! It was an Aurora. The Aurora Australis!!

"Auroral Bands above Observation Hill" by Edward Wilson in "Diary of the 'Discovery' Expedition." Image Credit via Adventures of Maritime History
“Auroral Bands above Observation Hill”
by Edward Wilson in
“Diary of the ‘Discovery’ Expedition.”
Image Credit via Adventures of Maritime History

As you can imagine, it was very exciting and truly an amazing sight to behold! The further away we hiked from station, the brighter and more colorful the lights became. Eventually, we got behind the Discovery Hut, which partially shielded us from the station lights, and there it was in its full splendor straight above us: wonderful hues of neon green streaking across the sky and dropping over the frozen Ross Sea like a curtain of light! It felt like you could reach out and touch them. The spectacle only got better the longer we endured the Antarctic cold. The aurora slowly moved from the sky above Ross Island (north) toward the sky over the mountains at the edge of the Antarctic continent (south), and as it migrated across the skies it changed its shape and size, and colors. And the colors! In addition to neon greens and hues of yellow, we saw it turn bright pink, and then a radiant purple. We spent over an hour at Hut Point simply staring at the sky! It was a first for both of us, and we were just in complete awe. We couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was and how fortunate we were that we decided to hike out from the station that night, and find ourselves unexpectedly entertained by one of the most incredible natural phenomena!

I’m no skilled photographer, but in addition to being a simply amazing experience, this was a perfect time to test out my new camera and try my hand at long-exposure photography. It doesn’t do it justice the least bit, but this was the best that I could capture of the Aurora Australis. As you can see, I need more practice, but I hope you enjoy nonetheless!

The Aurora Australis, Ob Hill, and the Discovery Hut. © A. Padilla
The Aurora Australis, Ob Hill, and the Discovery Hut.
© A. Padilla
Enjoying a beautiful view of the Aurora Australis, or the "Southern Lights," from Hut Point. © A. Padilla
Enjoying a beautiful view of the Aurora Australis, or the “Southern Lights,” from Hut Point.
© A. Padilla
A gorgeous change of color in the Aurora Australis from neon green to bright purple. © A. Padilla
A gorgeous change of color in the Aurora Australis from neon green to bright purple.
© A. Padilla
The Aurora Australis, or "Southern Lights," and Vince's Cross, at Hut Point. The lights behind the cross are from the Blue Ice Runway. © A. Padilla
The Aurora Australis, or “Southern Lights,” and Vince’s Cross, at Hut Point. The lights behind the cross are from the Pegasus Blue Ice Runway.
© A. Padilla
Vince's Cross, at Hut Point, and a dramatic shift in color of the Aurora Australis. © A. Padilla
Vince’s Cross, at Hut Point, and a dramatic shift in color of the Aurora Australis.
© A. Padilla

… you didn’t think I’d post something like this without including a little bit of science, did you?? What kind of scientist would that make me? Actually, the nature and physics behind how an Aurora works is kind of difficult to explain, but Arnfinn Christensen from the Physics Department at the University of Oslo has done a pretty great job explaining The Aurora Borealis (or “Northern Lights”), so if you’d like to know the basic science behind this amazing spectacle of light check out the short video below. Enjoy!

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/25811412 w=750&h=422]
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4 thoughts on “The Aurora Australis (Southern Lights)

  1. some truly beautiful photos, here and within your site – thanks for sharing your experience

  2. I so want to experience Antarctica, but alas without a science background it will be difficult. Your experiences were great reading, but wished there had been a farewell type entry when you left. I’m sure there were some tears.

    1. Dave: it was my intention to continue on with posts (I have nearly 30 GB of photos from my time in Antarctica!) and eventually end with a farewell entry (from my departure, of course), but life (and coming back to my PhD program) got in the way. I am still hopeful that I can occasionally put up new posts.

      As for working in Antarctica, there are plenty of positions that don’t require a science background (termed “science support” positions – e.g. someone has to cook, and take care of electricity, cleaning, maintain equipment… etc. etc. for the science groups). If you want to seriously consider working there, here is a place to start: http://www.usap.gov/usapgov/jobsAndOpportunities/index.cfm?m=1#agencies — see the links at the bottom of the page. GSC, GHG, and PAE in particular are the contractors for trade-type positions.

      Best,
      ~ Abe

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