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Aurora chasers watching solar activity closely for rare glimpse of southern lights

Georgie Burgess, Thursday May 16, 2019 - 18:00 EST
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Patience and optimism will help you spot the aurora australis. - ABC

Solar conditions seem perfect over the next few days and aurora chasers are waiting for the word — it's been months since the last big light show and predictions are flooding social media.

Viewing the aurora australis, or southern lights, is an increasingly popular hobby, and thousands of people are closely monitoring data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Meteorology.

One online group boasts 81,000 members, with novice and professional photographers alike waiting for their chance to shoot the perfect aurora.

New chasers inundate the group with questions: 'Where should I go?' 'Can I use this lens?' 'Will I see it from my house?'

And while patient and experienced viewers generously provide advice, there are many reasons why they probably won't see the southern lights this time.

Addicted to the chase

Veteran aurora chaser Margaret Sonnemann has founded websites, social media groups and written handbooks about the lights.


"If you've experienced an aurora, you'd be one of the growing number of people who at least want a heads up when something like this is going to happen," she told .

"I first saw an aurora and that was it — I wanted to see more."

It was the mid-1990s when Ms Sonnemann saw the lights for the first time, and there was no notification system in place.

But social media has proved to be a perfect platform to let other chasers know when an aurora is happening and where it can be seen.

"Auroras are notoriously difficult to predict," Ms Sonnemann said, adding that she had sometimes stayed out all night in perfect aurora conditions, only to see nothing but stars.

"It's so great to have other people to say, 'It's on, get out there'."

It's all up to the Sun

Aurora chasers keep a keen eye on solar activity and share information on social media that makes the most amateur enthusiast sound like a rocket scientist.

Putting it simply, Ms Sonnemann said it's all up to the Sun.

"When there's increased activity like a coronal mass ejection or coronal hole, the solar wind accelerates and it hits Earth and causes the atmosphere to reconfigure.

"Elements of this penetrate Earth's magnetic shield and collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere and cause little bursts of light."

Those bursts of light appear at the North and South poles.

The Sun's activity cycles — solar maximum and solar minimum — explain why auroras come and go.

"At the moment we are only having one aurora a month," Ms Sonnemann said.

"Things appear to be picking up and we need to get ready for them."

The lights can usually be seen throughout Tasmania and even parts of mainland Australia.

And while conditions look right for aurora activity over next few nights, it could happen during the day or on a cloudy night.

The Moon can also ruin things, as chasers are looking for darkness.

'Face south and be optimistic'

Photographer Toby Frost has been chasing the aurora for five years.

"I saw some pictures which gave me inspiration and I wanted to find my own," he said.

"My first aurora was the night after the Falls Festival (at Marion Bay). I was volunteering and saw a glow in the sky and I took some pictures, and low and behold there it was."

Mr Frost said aurora chasers couldn't rely solely on data.

"You've got to be an optimist and just head out.

"The hard work is getting out there and being prepared.

"You want it to be as dark as possible — that includes lights from the city and anything that washes out the look.

"The stronger it is, the more likely you are to see it with your naked eyes."

He said he also kept a keen eye on conditions and social media groups.

First-hand accounts from chasers in New Zealand also give those in Tasmania a head start.

Camera view versus naked eye

Mr Frost said an aurora viewer was unlikely to see the famed green curtains.

"The closer you are to the pole, the more it dances in the sky."

He said he had only seen curtains dancing overhead one time in five years.

The aurora also looked different when seen with the naked eye than by camera, he said.

"You can't see most of the colour with your naked eye — you might see a dull green.

"It can look like someone is running a torch across the horizon."

Mr Frost's tips for where to view the aurora were South Arm, Howden, Dove Lake at Cradle Mountain or over the top of Mount Roland in the north-west.

"Anywhere facing water is good ... but just enjoy being out under the stars."


© ABC 2019

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