It’s already been a good year in New Zealand for spotting the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis as they’re more correctly known. If you’ve never yet seen this remarkable natural phenomenon, then add seeing Southern Lights to your bucket list as this is one light show that you’ll never forget.
Tips on Seeing Southern Lights or Aurora Australis
What are the Southern Lights?
Aurora activity shows up in the dark as green, yellow, pink or purple curtains that seem to dance across the sky. They occur when electrically charged particles brought by solar winds react to gases found in the earth’s atmosphere. The colours you see are the result of the excess energy knocking around up there. Which colour you get depends on the types of gas and particles, though green is the most common.
Where can I see them?
You can catch the elusive Aurora Australis in Chile, Australia, Antarctica and of course, New Zealand. Because of its southerly location, New Zealand is one of the best places to spot the Southern Lights. When there’s a lot of solar activity, you can see the show across the country. All you have to do is find a spot that’s far enough from any light pollution – so that means getting out of the city. Aoraki/Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, both in the country’s dark sky reserve, fit the bill, but you could also strike it lucky in The Catlins or over on Stewart Island. Recently, the Lights were so strong that they were even spotted near Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, though this is rare.
When can I see them?
The Southern Hemisphere winter is the best time to see them, but the season lasts from March to September. Typically, the strongest activity will be around midnight, but they can make an appearance throughout the evening. You’ll need clear skies, of course, as clouds obscure the show. And most importantly of all, you’ll need to be lucky enough that the clear sky coincides with strong solar activity such as a coronal ejection or geomagnetic storm.
How do I know when solar activity is going to peak?
Auroras are measured in Kp, and the scale goes from 0 to 9, 9 being the greatest activity. You’ll get a good display with a Kp of 5 or so as this is the point which marks a geomagnetic storm. There are several websites which you can use to track such activity, the best of which is Aurora Service. It offers the facility to sign up for Aurora alerts, meaning you’ll receive a text when the outlook’s promising.
Grab your camera!
The rich colours of the Aurora Australis that you’ll have seen in photos aren’t always as vivid to the naked eye. If you want to achieve a souvenir photo while seeing Southern Lights, you’ll need to bear in mind a few pointers. First, take a tripod out with you. You’re going to need to set a long exposure and a hand held shot won’t be achievable. A remote shutter release will also minimise the risk of camera shake. Also, make sure you’re familiar with how to set manual focus on your camera. It’s no use pointing at the Lights themselves; instead, find a point on a distant horizon such as a mountain, remote farmhouse or even a tree and get that in focus. Finally, take a torch; if you’ve found a suitably dark spot, you’ll need it to see your camera’s dials.