There are many benefits to living in New Zealand. Amazing scenery, delicious wine, and plenty of sheep. But by far the best? Getting to spot the southern lights, or aurora australis, on a semi-regular basis.
Many people don’t realise that you can often spot the aurora in New Zealand, and it can be a pleasant surprise to many. At least, I hope the people camping next to us in the Catlins were pleasantly surprised when I ran over to them shouting “it’s the southern lights!’. They were sitting with their backs to the light show and I couldn’t help but share the aurora love!
So now you know you can spot the aurora australis on a trip to New Zealand – how can you spot it?
Are the southern lights in New Zealand the same as the northern lights?
Yes! The same thing that causes the northern lights causes the southern lights – solar wind interacting with particles at the magnetic poles. Or something sciencey. It looks different in photos to the traditional northern lights because you’re usually watching the northern lights closer to the pole. In New Zealand you’re usually looking at geomagnetic storms which are much further away, sometimes hundreds of km, so you’re seeing them from a different angle.
How do I know when there will be aurora australis in New Zealand??
The best thing to do is join one of the many facebook groups. I’m a member of Aurora Australis Alerts NZ, Aurora Service AUS and locally Queenstown Aurora Australis. I’ve set notifications on all of them, and have my settings so that they show up first in my newsfeed. They’re great little communities and you can see them blowing up when there’s a good night ahead!
You should also keep an eye on the Aurora Forecast. It is rarely 100% accurate but does give you great real time info and can be a heads up if something is brewing. Aurora strength is measure in KP from 1 being the weakest to 9 being the strongest. Look for anything over KP5. All the photos in this post were taken during 6-7KP activity.
It really is luck of the draw, and there can be heaps of activity one night but none the next.
Where’s the best place to see them?
Obviously the further south you go the better – as you’re much closer to the action! The Catlins is the furthest south you can be on the mainland and also has very little light pollution. Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook are in the dark sky reserve but are further north. It really depends on where you are when the Aurora strikes – sometimes a storm can whip up with only a few minutes notice!
If you see something forecast then get anywhere with very low light pollution. Hop in your car and head out of town, as far from artificial light as you can get. High vantage points can be a bonus if you’re in the mountains. And remember to keep looking south!
When is the best time to see them?
It’s a year-round phenomenon but you’re more likely to see them during winter (March-September) when there are fewer daylight hours. Two of the three times I’ve seen it so far have been early evening – if we were in mid summer it would still have been bright daylight outside!
Ideally the moon will be below the horizon. The full moon is so strong that it will increase the amount of light in the night sky, making spotting aurora difficult.
And of course you’ll need clear skies – you can spot the southern lights through thick New Zealand clouds…
How do I see the southern lights?
Look for a glow in the south. It looks a little like the moon might be setting with a glow on the horizon. During really strong storms you can see beams moving and dancing around, I even saw a curved beam over the horizon. You can see a lot with your naked eye – but just know it won’t look like it does in the photos (but then again, neither does Kate Moss).
Because your camera can absorb more light at night than your eyes it gives a much clearer picture of the aurora. To really get a good look bring your camera along. Even a little point and shoot works – you just need a manual setting on your camera and a tripod. For tips click: here.
So there you go – how to see the southern lights in New Zealand! Will you be trying to spot them this year? or have you already seen them?
Bear in mind that I’ve only been chasing the southern lights for six months. If you’ve got any top tips that I’ve missed then please let me know.