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The Aurora Australis appears over Hobart, Tasmania, but what causes it?

The sun releases particles of plasma (which we call “solar wind”) through sunspots and coronal holes. They strike the earth’s magnetosphere at hundreds of km/s. Contained within the plasma are electrons. When these electrons collide with the gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere it ‘excites’ them into a higher energy state. When they move back down to their natural energy state, they emit a photon of light, which becomes the aurora. Collisions with oxygen produce green and yellow auroras while collisions with nitrogen produce pink, red, purple and blue auroras. 

The sun goes through an 11 year cycle of solar maximum and solar minimum. During solar maximum there are more solar flares, resulting in a higher frequency of stronger auroras. Hobart, Tasmania, is at 42 degrees south latitude and typically experiences the Aurora Australis at least several times or more a year, dependent upon the solar cycle. Tasmania has also got some of the darkest skies in the world, especially when facing south of Hobart, so we are blessed to have fantastic views of the Southern Lights.

This panorama photograph of the Aurora Australis was taken from Hope Beach on South Arm about 25 minutes southeast of Hobart. Goat’s Bluff and Hope Beach are among the most popular locations to view the Aurora Australis around Hobart.

Photographer’s Reflection:

“May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us–yes, establish the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:17)

Auroras are notoriously unpredictable, so capturing a great shot of an aurora is quite an exciting challenge for photographers. Even when a geomagnetic storm has been predicted, auroras still randomly appear and disappear without warning (and sometimes do not appear at all).

I arrived at Hope Beach at sunset and waited for the light to fade enough to capture the aurora, which unfortunately, peaked in the middle of our daylight hours. I kept doing test shots…nothing…nothing…nothing…for an hour and a half.

I had to be up early the next morning, so I debated whether or not I should call it quits and go home. In the end, I decided to wait a bit longer because it is very rare when the solar forecast lines up with the weather forecast, the work forecast and, most difficult of all, the babysitting forecast.

Hope Beach is a very popular destination for aurora hunters, yet surprisingly that night I was all alone for those first couple hours…until I saw the flicker of a torch approaching me. Another photographer set up a short distance away from me. 

Seeing there was no aurora around to shoot, I decided to go over and say hello. The nice young man was a beginner photographer doing his first night shoot. He was ever so grateful to meet another photographer who could tell him what lens to use and what camera settings to try.

As we were speaking, all of a sudden the Aurora Australis unexpectedly erupted on the horizon. We watched the brilliant aurora beams and bands dance across the night sky, and kept remarking out loud how awesome it was. The new photographer was totally thrilled!

In keeping with its unpredictable nature, this relatively spectacular aurora only lasted about a half hour, and then it disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared. It did not reappear for the next two hours, after which point I decided to go home.

I felt particularly blessed and favored by God to have captured these shots, especially considering my narrow window of opportunity.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)

In real life, this aurora extended across the horizon twice the length of this panorama. Unfortunately, the beams were moving too quickly in between each of the 25 second exposures that the photography software could not stitch them together. Thankfully it could stitch at least half of them into this panorama.


Landscape Photography