If ever there was a year to enjoy the incredible Southern Lights, 2021 is the year.
With international tourism all but stopped and local operators desperately needing us to support locals, there were already a number of great reasons to explore our own backyard.
Now though, it’s clear that the Aurora Australis, otherwise known as the Southern Lights will be the brightest seen in years.
With beautiful shades of purple, pink, green, and yellow, these displays are often observed even by the naked eye. Or, to capture their true beauty, you’ll want to brush up on your long-exposure photography skills.
What Causes the Southern Lights?
Aurora Australis (which is the Latin term for the Southern Lights) is a scientific phenomenon viewable in our atmosphere.
These displays become visible when high-energy particles from the Sun rain down on Earth. As they get closer to us, they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. This channels them in the direction of both magnetic poles – explaining why you are most likely to see them further north and south.
As these particles are accelerated downwards, they hit atoms in our upper atmosphere (ranging from 90km to 700km high). This process results in a growing field of excited gas – this is what we see when we observe one of these incredible natural light shows.
The light can take on a variety of different colors (they are in fact different to the north than they are to the south). The displays often dance over the polar skies for hours on end, creating an amazing show for anyone lucky enough to see.
Why is 2021 Expected to be a Fantastic Year for Aurora Australis Viewing?
Aurora Australis activity fluctuates over time, operating in a cyclical manner.
Fortunately for us, 2021 is looking particularly good, due to increased solar wind activity!
The sun is waking up from a couple of years of low activity (solar activity goes through an 11-year cycle) and we are starting to see it rise again
Dr. Ian Griffin, Otago Museum
When is the Best Time to View the Southern Lights?
The colder weather brings with it the best chances of seeing the Aurora Australis. Between March and September is prime viewing season.
This is also the best time for stargazing in Aotearoa when you’ll see the Milky Way pass overhead.
As for the time of day, you’ll only see the Southern Lights at night when the sky is really dark. Midnight tends to be the best time to see them.
The combination of prime stargazing season and the Southern Lights makes for incredible photography opportunities down in the South Island!
Where Are You Most Likely to See the Southern Lights?
As a general rule, the further south you head, the more likely you are to see the Southern Lights (in much the same way that the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are strongest closer to the North Pole).
Specifically, Aurora Australis is best seen from the following locations:
Lake Tekapo (and its surrounding areas which is a part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve)
The Otago Peninsula
Each of these places is fairly well south and allows viewers to successfully escape city lights.
What Conditions are Required to See the Aurora Australis?
So, you’re in the right place at the right time of year.
What can you do now to maximize your chances of a successful Aurora Australis viewing?
First of all, Dr. Ian Griffin of the Otago Museum recommends heading away from the bright city lights (which interfere with viewing all but the very brightest displays).
In addition, you’ll want to be sure you have an unobstructed view to the south and a night with minimal cloud cover.
Finally, if you’d like confirmation that you’re looking at a display (as sometimes they are barely visible to the naked eye), pop your manual camera on long-exposure and snap a couple of photographs. If there are Southern Lights out, you’ll be sure to see them.
Keep your eyes peeled for what might look like a haze of foggy appearance as lower levels of activity won’t necessarily look like what you’re used to seeing in photographs.
How Can I Find Out if the Southern Lights are Out Tonight?
It is possible to forecast the Southern Lights and to predict their strength.
Aurora is measured in Kp, with 0 being the weakest and 9 being the strongest. Anything considered a Kp5 or stronger is labeled a geomagnetic storm (which increases your chances of seeing them).
There are a number of different websites, Facebook groups, and apps dedicated to helping people find the Southern Lights. If you’re keen to track them down, checking these will be of benefit.
These are our favorites:
Southern Hemisphere Aurora Group
Aurora Australis – New Zealand CURRENT ALERTS
My Aurora Forecast & Alerts: Apple & Android
If you manage to capture the Aurora Australis, please be sure to share your photos in New Zealand Travel Tips!
Photos by Dr. Ian Griffin of the Otago Museum.
BY SARAH CHANT