The World’s Most Remarkable Light Show
New Zealand is known for a lot of natural wonders, and Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights) has to be one of the most wonderful of all. But with the right conditions and the right location, the Aurora Australis will give you a night to remember. So what are the best times and locations to see the Southern Lights in New Zealand? We’ll go through it all in the guide below.
Aurora Australis may be lesser known than Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights), but it is just as impressive! Only a few of us have had the privilege to see the electric phenomenon because we struggle to get far enough south. That’s with the exception of Australia, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Antarctica. So if you have chosen New Zealand as your travel destination, then here’s yet another reason you have made the right decision! In New Zealand, you can see the aurora activity as a green and pink hue over the horizon and even dancing green veils lighting up the sky. To increase your chances of seeing the Southern Lights on your travels, you need a combination of the best time, the best weather conditions, and being in the right place.
Before we get started, let’s go over a simple fact: There are no New Zealand northern lights, although similar beautiful events only the southern lights can be experienced in New Zealand.
BONUS: Don’t miss our complete checklist for the best Southern Lights viewing at the end of this article.
What is an Aurora? New Zealand Southern Lights
Auroras are electrically charged particles from solar winds that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and react with its gases. Solar winds are part of “space weather”, which is a stream of highly energised particles and electromagnetic radiation emitted from the sun. The particles are blown around in space at a very high speed and temperature just like they are being blown about in the most extreme wind ever!
What usually protects the Earth from the solar wind is the magnetosphere, which is constantly changing in size depending on the solar winds. The magnetosphere stops solar winds and other cosmic rays from entering the Earth’s atmosphere (and killing us all). However, an aurora is formed when some of the charged particles from the solar winds break through the magnetosphere at the north and south poles and reacts with the Earth’s atmospheric gases. Energy is transferred between the gases and solar wind electrons. Any excess energy becomes the pretty lights that you see in the aurora.
The colours of the aurora are due to a number of factors: the type of gas molecule, the electrical state at the time of collision, and the type of solar wind particle that the gas collides with.
To see this space weather for yourself, take a look below for the best times and locations to see the Southern Lights in New Zealand.
Are you travelling with kids? Here are some Fun Facts about the Auroras from the good folks at NASA.
The Best Time to View the Southern Lights
Unfortunately, the Southern Lights are not very predictable. They don’t run on a schedule. In fact, they tend to occur with only 30 minutes notice!
The Best Times and Months to See Aurora Australis
Although auroras happen all year round, the best time to see them in New Zealand is during the winter months (March to September) with the best months being June and July. The widest part of the aurora is when the sun is on the opposite side of the Earth to where you are, so around midnight is best.
What Forecasts to Look Out For
You can check various websites for the Aurora Australis forecast, which measures the aurora strength in Kp. Kp ranges between 0 and 9 0 being the weakest, 9 being the strongest. Anything classed as Kp5 or above is considered a geomagnetic storm (see below). There is a solar cycle that creates higher solar wind activity. However, it is said that it only occurs every 11 years and the last one was 2013… So we can’t get excited about that just yet.
Can You View the Southern Lights in Summer in New Zealand?
We know that most travellers will choose to travel to New Zealand during summer to make the most of the great weather and plentiful attractions. As mentioned above, however, the best time of the year to see the Southern Lights in New Zealand is in winter (March to September), and particularly from June to July.
So what if you are travelling in New Zealand in summer and still want to see the Southern Lights?
Well, as mentioned the Southern Lights are very unpredictable. In fact, some fantastic photos of the Southern Lights came out of summer viewing. However, this is rare and usually occur later during the night. If you are wanting to see the Southern Lights in summer, prepare to stay up from 12am to 4am. You will also need to pay extra attention to predictions for very high Kp ratings and, most importantly, set your expectations right. It is rather unlikely that you’ll spot anything in the summer months (December to February). The closer it is to winter, the higher your chances get. Here are 13 more Reasons to Travel in the Shoulder and Off-Season in New Zealand.
The Perfect Conditions to See the Southern Lights – Aurora Australis Forecast
In order to see an aurora from New Zealand, there needs to be solar activity with strong gusts of solar winds reacting with the magnetosphere. This causes a geomagnetic storm, which tends to expand the aurora activity so that you can see it in New Zealand. Check out an Aurora Australis forecast to see if the reading is Kp5 or above.
You Need Dark Clear Skies
With solar activity needs to be a super clear night! Dark, dark, dark and darker. Get away from any lowlight like artificial lights from cities. The best places tend to be on mountains, that’s why some of New Zealand’s best observatories are in high places.
That said, another thing that will hinder your Southern Lights viewing is natural light: moonlight! A full moon is not a good time to view the auroras.
One last thing, auroras happen in the upper atmosphere, so you won’t be able to see them if there is cloud cover.
In conclusion, the perfect conditions for viewing the Southern Lights is during strong solar activity on a clear winter’s night, away from any light pollution, when the moon is at its darkest. That’s not too much to ask right?
Where in New Zealand Can You See the Southern Lights?
As the Southern Lights hang around the South Pole, it makes sense that the further south you go in New Zealand the more likely you are to see the lights. However, the stronger the aurora the further north you can see it. And remember, look south! Take a compass or use your GPS on your phone.
There are a few noteworthy locations in New Zealand that are great for seeing the Southern Lights if the conditions are right:
- Stewart Island: the most southern populated New Zealand island, Stewart Island is a short ferry ride from Bluff or flight from Invercargill. It is scarcely populated and mostly made up of national park, so light pollution is not an issue. However, the weather is unpredictable.
- Lake Tekapo and Aoraki Mt Cook National Park: both these locations are in the Dark Sky Reserve, meaning they are internationally recognised as having some of the darkest skies in the world. You can get high in the mountains in these locations, like at the Mt John Observatory in Tekapo, to see some magical displays.
- The Catlins: this is one of the most southern places you can go on the mainland where you can get away from light pollution.
Power Tip: If you want to photograph the Southern Lights, then follow the tips in How to Photograph Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights).
Are There Tours to See Aurora Australis?
Due to the infrequent nature of seeing the Southern Lights from New Zealand, tours that are dedicated to witnessing Aurora Australis are extremely limited. Viva Expeditions is one of your only dedicated Southern Lights tours in New Zealand, offering flights over the Southern Ocean towards Antarctica to see the lights.
Alternatively, those lucky enough to be on a stargazing tour during an aurora display are sure to get the most out of the experience. Stargazing tours, such as with Dark Sky Project Observatory Tour in Lake Tekapo and Horizon Tours in Dunedin (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor) are recommended.
Checklist for Awesome Aurora Australis Viewing
A Combination of These Things Will Give You a Night to Remember
Here are the main things you need to know about the best times and locations to see the Southern Lights in New Zealand.
- Strong solar activity: Check the Aurora Australis forecast for a prediction above Kp5
- Go to the South Island of New Zealand: Check out 5 Places to See The Southern Lights in New Zealand
- Pick a night with clear skies and no cloud cover
- Schedule your viewing for minimal moonlight, avoid full moon nights
- Choose a location with limited artificial lights
- Get high view from a hill or mountain. (Not the other type of high)
- View late at night to early morning, the Best time starts at midnight
- View in winter: The winter months in New Zealand are from March to September
- Bonus: Plan your trip on a “perfect solar cycle year” (roughly in 2024 and 2035)
That’s it for our guide on the best times and locations to see the Southern Lights in New Zealand. Discover more about good timing in our other guide, When is the Best Time to Visit New Zealand?