Aurora! At Mawson it's become similar to the call of "Eureka!" in the gold rush days. Most will find a window and try to peer through the reflections caused by the double glazing with hands cupped over foreheads to see if it is worth getting dressed. If you can see any "colour" through the tinting it's usually reasonably bright and worth sticking your head out the door to then check if you need your camera.
Unfortunately, the best time of the night for viewing is usually about 2AM when the Sun is nearly opposite to Mawson (please ask your friendly neighbourhood astrophysicist for an explanation), which makes the art of forecasting quite important. Firstly, no cloud, so a check of the weather forecast (and a quick peek outside) is needed. Then a check of space weather forecasts: solar wind, recent solar activity, magnetic field strength and direction. After all of that, and regardless of what magical number you end up with, set the alarm for 2am and poke your head outside as it’s probably changed.
In “simple” terms the aurora is caused by charged particles from the sun, carried by the solar wind penetrating the Earth’s magnetic field and reacting with gases in the upper atmosphere. The gas determines the colour of the aurora, nitrogen will produce blue or red and oxygen will produce green or brown-red, with green auroras most common. The aurora occurs simultaneously in both the northern (aurora borealis) and southern (aurora australis) hemispheres in a very similar pattern (an oval around each of the poles). Because of the shape of the Earth’s magnetic field, the aurora is most visible at high latitudes and will be visible in Australia when the effect is strong enough, usually following a solar flare.
"There must be an easier way", I hear you ask. I've setup my "Frankencamera" with timer to take a picture every 30 seconds. As the standard battery lasts for only 2-300 shots I’ve taken it apart and hooked up an external battery. With a little manipulation of the 2000 odd photos taken overnight, a time-lapse of the activity can be made as well as capturing some great photos by themselves. It sounds like cheating but when it's -20C outside, windy and 2am, it's much easier. There are risks to leaving your camera outside from sunset to sunrise as on one occasion, the lens was filled with snow when I went to retrieve it in the morning (with some careful blowing, heating and drying it is now working again).
The aurora is a mesmerising phenomenon, with usually green “curtains” of light that move and dance around quite quickly as if a breeze was blowing them around, bright enough at times to illuminate the ice with a dull green before fading away completely. It’s something that never loses its charm or fascination.
Auroral Grandeur by Mike Manion (Electronics engineer, Mawson 1994)
As the dark of night intrudes our soul,
We watch agape the distant void.
With dreams and knowledge of mortal through,
We ponder our stage in meagre play.
Our hearts and heads in solemn keep,
Suppress the echoes of a lonely beat.
We gaze in wonder of a distant realm,
And shiver in the light of frozen time.
As we mine our thought in questful bid,
To extract explanation beyond a myth,
We feel a quickening not of this world,
And focus with study the starry ensemble.
With swift and bounty silence,
There bursts a crimson from the ether.
With a celestial drape of halo green,
It writhes in passion of reverant beauty.
In shimmering veil of feathered loft,
The aurora descends in a radiant furore.
Like colourful serpents in a titanic struggle,
It pulses and ripples in surreal enchantment.
With a seductive evanescence that pervades all being,
We are drawn inexorably to this electric synergy.
The turmoil of colour extends and invitation,
Our spirits soar in seraphic effigy.
With sudden retreat to nebulous blotches,
We gaze through the vestige of the auroral diminuendo.
Gone is the colour that festooned the heavens,
And again just start crowd the vacuous sky.
As the cool antarctic chill enshrouds the night
Our spirits remain aloft the introspective glance,
And we are reminded in full as we turn in the epoch
That in nature transience is born to all.