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BAA Journal 2018 February

The first recorded aurora australis?

Journal issue: 2018 February
Pages: 33–37

Reports of the aurora australis (southern lights) before the voyages of Captain Cook in the Southern Ocean in the 1770s are very scarce. There were no major settlements in the southern hemisphere south of Valdivia in Chile at 40°S, and ships rarely ventured into latitudes where the aurora was likely to be seen. The only voyage requiring ships to go much beyond 45°S was the dangerous passage round South America through the Straits of Magellan or Cape Horn, at 55-56°S. This paper examines a possible aurora australis reported on one such voyage in 1580, which pre-dates other early reports by several decades.

Early reports of the aurora australis
In 2009, David Willis, José Vaquero and Richard Stephenson published an interesting resumé of early reports of the aurora australis. They found only two examples before Cook’s voyages – 1640 and 1745. The first was from Chile, apparently first recognised as a possible aurora by the French physicist Alfred Angot in 1896. There was volcanic activity in Chile at the time, making interpretation difficult, but Willis et al. made a good case for probable recurring aurorae in 1640. They noted that the 1745 report was an illumination resembling the northern lights, seen by the explorer Antonio de Ulloa whilst rounding Cape Horn.
There are several reports dating from the early 1770s, including the first known contemporaneous observations of the aurora australis and borealis at geomagnetic conjugate points on the night of 1770 September 16, consistent with an intense geomagnetic storm. On this occasion the aurora australis was recorded in the journals of Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson, written on board HMS Endeavour during Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia.
Two candidate reports dating from 1712, not mentioned by Willis et al., were listed by the German geophysicist Wilhelm Boller in his catalogue of the aurora australis in 1898.8 Witnessed in the South Atlantic and then the Pacific by the French explorer Amédée-François Frézier, they are now regarded as probable meteors.
In 2011 Peter McIntosh, a geologist and Shakespeare scholar from Tasmania, suggested (in a discussion of Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’), that the aurora australis was seen in 1580 by the Spaniard Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, but made no further comment.

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa
Sarmiento lived around 1530 to 1592 and was an eminent scientific navigator, the first European to reach the Pacific Solomon Islands, not far from Australia (around 200 years before Cook’s voyages to that region). A highly competent observer, he is known for determining the longitude of Lima from his observations of a lunar eclipse, in secret collaboration with the cosmographer Rodrigo Zamorano, who observed from Seville. He was the first to observe the solar-lunar angle to determine longitude at sea. In these and other scientific accomplishments, Sarmiento contributed significantly to the Iberian peninsula’s participation in the beginnings of the so-called ‘scientific revolution’... (continued)

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