What Is the Difference Between the Northern Lights & Southern Lights? - Owlcation - Education
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What Is the Difference Between the Northern Lights & Southern Lights?

I'm an avid outdoorsman who loves hiking, biking, snowboarding, and amateur science.

If you are wondering if there is any difference between the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights, this page is designed to give you the answer. The Aurora Borealis, in the North, and the Aurora Australis, in the South, are two of the most exciting spectacles you can witness on earth. Today we will look at what exactly these Northern and Southern Lights are and what the differences are between them. This article aims to answer several general questions that people have about auroras.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Northern and Southern Lights

  • What's the difference between the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights?
  • What Is the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis?
  • Where can you see the Northern and Southern Lights?
  • How do I find out where I can see The Northern and Southern Lights?

Both the Northern and Southern Lights have been capturing the imagination of people for centuries. These beautiful light displays can be witnessed in the far reaches of both hemispheres. They are both spectacular and entrancing. You tend to find that the Aurora Borealis, in the North, gets more publicity, but the fact is that the Southern Lights can be just as impressive.

The Aurora

The Aurora

What's The Difference Between the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights?

First of all let’s get straight to the point. Other than geographical location, there really is no difference between the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights. They both take place over the polar regions and are basically the same phenomenon. Although if you see either of the displays you are witnessing the same thing, there are reasons why the Northern Lights tends to be a lot more popular and far easier to see.

That Being said, Nikolai Østgaard and Karl Magnus Laundal, both of the University of Bergen in Norway, reported in the journal Nature that “...we report observations that clearly contradict the common assumption about symmetric aurora: intense spots are seen at dawn in the Northern summer Hemisphere, and at dusk in the Southern winter Hemisphere,” they write. “The asymmetry is interpreted in terms of inter-hemispheric currents related to seasons, which have been predicted but hitherto had not been seen.” Their report was based on observations from new global imaging cameras at each pole. The authors suggest that this asymmetry confirms the existence of inter-hemispheric field-aligned currents related to the seasons. This had been predicted by a few scientists, but it had never before been observed. Nevertheless, this is not something that's going to be noticeable to you or me, and both Auroras are caused by the same natural phenomenon.

Around the Northern Arctic, Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and a few other places stretch high into the Arctic Circle, where the Aurora is most active. Due to this fact, there are lots of places you can go to view the lights. There are a lot of settlements located far enough North that people can go to see the Aurora Borealis on quite a regular basis. However, in the Southern Hemisphere it is a very different story. The Antarctic is surrounded by open water, there are very few land masses and even fewer populated areas. This makes catching a glimpse of the Aurora Australis far more difficult.

When you look online you can find lots of articles and pictures of the Northern Lights, whereas the Southern Lights tend to get far less press coverage. Your best bet for viewing the Aurora in the South is to hop on a cruise ship and head down as far as they will take you. That said, you can view the lights from places such as New Zealand, Argentina, and The Falklands. But more often than not, if people want to view the Aurora, they tend to head North.

What Is the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis?

Definition: The Aurora Borealis is a natural electrical phenomenon characterized by the appearance of streamers of reddish or greenish light in the sky, usually near the northern or southern magnetic pole.

Why Do Auroras Happen?

  • Auroras are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Charged particles are released from the sun’s atmosphere and strike the Earth's atmosphere.
  • Variations in color are caused by the type of gas particles that are colliding.
  • The most common aurora color is green. It is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth.
  • Red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles.
  • Nitrogen produces a blue or purple aurora.
The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights

Places Where You Can See the Northern and Southern Lights

Places where you can see the Northern LightsPlaces where you can see the Southern Lights

Reykjavík, Iceland

Queenstown, New Zealand

Fairbanks, Alaska

Mount Wellington, Tasmania

Yellowknife, Canada

Victoria, Australia

Tromso, Norway

Antarctica & South Georgia Island

Greenland

Ushuaia, Argentina

How Do I Find Out Where I Can See The Northern Or Southern Lights?

So if you are reading this and fancy catching a glimpse of the Aurora yourself, how exactly do you go about doing it? Well, unless you live in the far North or South you are going to have to travel. There are various places that you can visit that offer great viewing locations. For your best chances of viewing the auroras, you want to visit in the winter months. In the North, you should visit from October through April. In the South, you should visit from May through September. The more hours of darkness, the better your chances are of seeing the auroras. This will greatly increase your chances of seeing something.

You can also get Aurora forecasts. These usually run a few days in advance but they can give you a good idea of how active the Aurora is going to be and where it is most likely to be viewed. It is also worth remembering that the Aurora runs on a cycle, this means some years tend to have higher levels of activity than others. For instance, 2011 was a very poor year for viewing the lights, whereas 2012 and 2013 were very good years for viewing the lights.

Where Can I Find Aurora Forecasts?

If you are one of the fortunate people who does get to go and witness this extraordinary phenomenon, then you really are in for a treat! As mentioned above, there really is no significant difference between the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights. Both are truly wonderful and are something everyone should try and see.

Sources

  1. Aurora Service
  2. Smithsonian
  3. NOAA

Comments

bob on January 27, 2020:

what are they mad of?

Anonymous on October 12, 2016:

Thanks a lot really helping! for my project at shcool!

dfdfdfdfdf on May 19, 2012:

thanks helped me heaps with my assignment

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on January 20, 2012:

We learned about the lights at a recent visit to a Planetarium. They are the result of solar flares and you are correct that the next 2 years are going to result in more showings of the Northern Lights and Southern Lights. You don't have to live very far toward the poles to see them, either. We can enjoy the Northern Lights here in Oregon (Pacific Northwest of the USA). Cheers, Steph

Rob Winters on January 19, 2012:

Very interesting stuff.I'd bet many people haven't even heard of the lesser mentioned Aurora Australis.Maybe one day i'll get to see them for myself.Up & Interesting.

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