The Southern Lights from Queenstown


In the last few weeks, epic storms and unusual weather patterns have hit the South Island and caused quite a stir.  No, we’re not talking about torrential rain and wild winds. We're talking about storms that have taken place in the dark skies above the Southern Hemisphere, visible to us on the ground from a few locations around Queenstown.  Solar storms, intense geomagnetic storm events, have occurred in the south of the South Island over the last few weeks, delivering a spectacular display of the Aurora Australia, also known as the Southern Lights.

The Southern Hemisphere's Aurora Australis

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a common occurrence in the Northern Hemisphere. So much so that countries like Finland, Iceland and Canada lure tourists with promises of dazzling solar light shows. Unfortunately, the Southern Hemisphere's aurorae are extremely rare and difficult to predict.

But those in Queenstown this winter have been lucky to catch a cosmic light display. Generally, the best time of year to witness a display of Aurora Australis is the cold, clear nights of winter. And the further south you are, the better the chance of seeing the lights. Apart from visiting Antarctica, the south of the South Island is one of the best places to be.

What is an Aurora?

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Aurora Australis appears as pink and green lights that appear to dance on the horizon and flicker into the sky above. The straightforward explanation of an aurora is that it is an interaction of cosmic rays or solar winds with the earth’s upper atmosphere. Electrically charged particles from solar winds enter the earth’s atmosphere and react with its gases.

The colours of the aurora are dependent on a number of factors, including gas molecules, the electrical state at the time of the collision, and the type of solar wind particle that the gas collides with.

Your best chance of seeing the Southern Lights

Predicting when the Southern Lights will next make an appearance is not as simple as predicting when the next snowfall will hit. In fact, astronomers only seem to be able to predict an event about 30 minutes before it happens.  The University of Otago has launched a fantastic website which will alert you of the next possible occurrence.  While it is Dunedin based, it can be used as an indicator for Queenstown too.

Southern lights from Queenstown

But there are a few things you can do to increase your chances:

Midnight Feasts

It’s most likely that a display will occur when the sun is on the opposite side of the earth from where you are. So that means getting out at around midnight to gaze skyward.

The Perfect Storm

The Southern Lights need solar activity in the form of strong solar winds, which will cause a geomagnetic storm.  Try NiWA for accurate forecasting.

Dark Skies

Get as far away from light pollution as possible. A perfectly, dark sky without any clouds will make it easier to see the display. And avoid a full moon, as the bright light will hinder your chances of seeing an aurora.

The Locations

It is possible to see the Aurora Australis from Queenstown. But with the constant lights, it will be less impressive. There are plenty of locations close to Queenstown that are free from light pollution. Some of these include Stewart Island and The Catlins. Just out of Tekapo, Mackenzie Basin is internationally recognised as one of the best places to view the remarkable light show (or any celestial activity). Mackenzie Basin is 2,600 km2 (1660 m2) of big sky country and is completely free from light pollution. The district even has the very cool title of Dark Sky Reserve. New Zealand’s premier astronomical research observatory, The Mount John University Observatory, is found here. New Zealand is known as the home of many natural wonders, so if you are lucky enough to be in the South Island when this exceptional natural phenomenon occurs, you are sure to be in for a night to remember.