What is an aurora?
Auroras are electrically charged particles from solar winds that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and react with itsÂ gases.
Solar winds are part of “space weather”,Â whichÂ is a stream of highly energised particles and electromagnetic radiation emitted from the sun. The particles are blown aroundÂ in space at a very high speed and temperature â 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.
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 toÂ September). 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 â 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 higherÂ 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.
The perfect conditions to see the Southern lights
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 causesÂ 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,Â 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 it’s 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 AorakiÂ 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 theÂ 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).
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 â check the Aurora Australis forecast
- Go to south New Zealand â check out 5 Places to See The Southern Lights in New Zealand.
- Clear skies â no cloud cover
- Limited artificial lights
- Limited moonlight
- Get high â view from a hill or mountain. (Not the other type of high)
- View late at night to early morning
- View in winter.