Whether you're lucky enough to catch the northern lights in the Arctic or the southern lights in the Antarctic, there's no doubt these natural phenomena are breathtaking no matter where you are. But what's the difference between these southern and northern lights? And when's the best time to see them? Here's a quick guide to spotting the auroras at both poles.
Aurora borealis, Aurora australis – what's the difference?
Taking their name from Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the North Wind, the Aurora borealis were given their name by scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. But for centuries, the supernatural-seeming northern lights have been the subject of both legend and lore – the Vikings believing them to be reflections of the Valkyries' shields as they retrieved the souls of fallen warriors, while in Greenland, the lights were believed to be the souls of children who had died at birth. In the south, with few human populations close enough to the South Pole to observe them, the Aurora australis, which take their name from the Greek god of the South Wind, Auster, have fewer myths surrounding them, although the Maori in New Zealand did believe the southern lights to be reflections of the torches and campfires of past generations settled further south.
The northern and southern lights are in fact, of course, caused by solar winds driven from the sun towards Earth. Drawn towards the poles by the Earth's magnetic field, the winds’ electrically charged particles collide with atoms and gas molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, creating photons, tiny explosions of light. The different colors of the aurora are determined by the gasses the highly charged particles come into contact with – oxygen molecules create green or red displays, while nitrogen molecules create blue or violet auroras. And the same phenomenon occurs both at the southern and northern magnetic poles, meaning there is essentially no difference between the southern and northern lights.
Aurora australis – the southern lights
Milky way and Aurora Australis taken from Antarctica. Source: Canva
However, the southern lights are much harder to see than the northern lights, as there are fewer landmasses around the Antarctic Circle to see them from. Unlike in the north, where you can head out into the tundra to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, Antarctica's unique topography – with less land and more pack ice – makes catching sight of the southern lights even harder. And it's much more difficult to navigate your way to a viewing point, when there's a prospect of seeing the southern lights a few kilometers away. The lights are also best seen during the Antarctic winter between March and September, at a time when relatively few cruise ships travel into the frozen south. Unlike the northern lights though, the southern lights can be seen at any time of the year, even during the Antarctic summer.
Interestingly, the southern lights are also often considered to be even more impressive than the northern lights, often more vibrant as they are mostly unaffected by light pollution and offering an even broader spectrum of colors, with hues of golds, purples, oranges and pinks – as the highly-charged particles are able to penetrate deeper into the Earth's atmosphere and at greater speeds to collide with larger and more densely packed gas molecules.
When is the best time to see the southern lights?
The best month to spot the southern lights in the Antarctic, when the nights are long and dark, solar activity is high and Antarctic cruises are still available, is March. Then, you might be lucky enough to witness the Aurora australis from the deck of your boat, or from your tent, should you decide to embark on a one-night Antarctic camping adventure, offered by several polar cruise operators. Alongside the southern tips of Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand, one of the best places to see the southern lights are the islands of South Georgia and the Falklands as two of the southernmost land masses closest to the South Pole.
Aurora borealis – the northern lights
Aurora Borealis, Iceland. Source: Canva
While in the south, it's often the penguins who have the most opportunities to enjoy the phenomenon of the southern lights, in the north the Aurora borealis are visible within the oval around the North Pole between September and March. The best time to see the northern lights largely depends on where you want to travel. On land, the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland, for example, might be between the autumn equinox (around 22nd September) and the spring equinox in March, while the best time to cruise Alaska to see the northern lights is September, when cruise ships are still able to sail the Arctic Ocean and it is dark enough to catch these breathtaking illuminations.
When it comes to seeing the northern lights, one of the most important considerations is getting away from any interference from light pollution. So, there's no better way to spot the Aurora borealis than from the deck of a cruise ship, miles out to sea and able to navigate its way to the best viewing points. Just outside the Arctic Circle, but still navigable by ship in September, two of the best places to see the northern lights are Greenland and Iceland. In Iceland, the lights are visible more than 100 nights a year. And while in Greenland, some of the best places to see the northern lights, such as Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut, due to their sheltered location and clear night skies, are on the west coast of Greenland closest to Alaska, there is still a good chance of catching a glimpse of the Aurora borealis on Greenland's eastern coast, in Kulusuk or Tasiilaq, just south of Ittoqqortoormiit, for example.
The northern and southern lights – a breathtaking phenomenon
Looking at the Northern Lights. Source: Canva
No matter when or where you go, there are a few extra things you can do to make your northern or southern lights experience even more magical.
- Check the forecast
While on your Arctic or Antarctic cruise, it might not be you in charge of getting to the lights, it's still worth checking the forecast. Aurora activity is notoriously unpredictable, but there are many websites that will show the KP index, which indicates solar storm activity, for your area.
- Charge your batteries
Not all aurora sightings are breathtaking or visible to the naked eye, but your camera is likely to see them better than you do. So, make sure you have the right camera lenses, plenty of room on your photo card and your batteries are fully charged, so that you can capture and store your memories and bragging rights for years to come.
- Dress warmly
Whether you're on board an Antarctic or Arctic cruise or heading across the winter wonderland of the Arctic Circle, you're sure to spend many hours out in the open air, keeping your eyes peeled for a glimpse of these natural wonders. Be sure to cover your extremities with hats, gloves, and an extra pair of socks, and dress in layers so that you can quickly get out into the fresh air again when a sighting is close at hand.
If you're looking for more ways to make your northern lights or southern lights experience even more incredible, take a look at our Under The Northern Lights polar cruise to Iceland and Greenland. Or if you're eager to catch the southern lights aboard an Antarctic cruise, check out our March trips to the icy continent here, including our 21-day Antarctic, South Georgia and Falklands Odyssey.