While the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, is a famous bucket list item for many night sky watchers around the world, the lesser known Southern Lights are not less scenic. They are much easier to access and observe than their northern counterpart (Finland, Iceland and Norway are the top spots to see the Aurora Borealis).
Dr Ian Griffin, an Aurora Australis expert and shares his tips on the best way to enjoy the Southern Lights. During astronomer Dr Ian Griffin’s four years living in Dunedin, New Zealand, he has seen the Southern Lights over 150 times. He said, “The fundamental reason we see it is we are one of the closest land masses outside of Antarctica to the Aurora Australis and we are remote and isolated with very little light pollution.”
Because the Southern Lights appear from just over the Southern horizon in Dunedin, depending on where you are viewing them, the lights are often framed by hills and bodies of water, causing reflections which are particularly interesting for keen photographers. “It still surprises me how many people have lived here their whole life and don’t know about the Southern Lights,” said Dr Griffin, who is the director of the Otago Museum, which has its own planetarium. “I have seen the Northern Lights and they are wonderful because they are directly overhead, but to me, personally, I find the Southern Lights a more subtle and beautiful aurora,” he shared.
The Aurora Australis is caused by electrically charged particles from the sun getting trapped in the earth’s magnetic atmosphere, causing an enchanting light show. Statistically, the best time of year to view the Southern Lights is around the equinoxes of March and September, though June and July are also good months as the sky is darkest then, making any aurora activity easier and more dramatic to observe. Griffin said it is important to maximise your chances of seeing the aurora by planning your viewing around the phases of the moon, the last quarter and first quarter moons being the best times, as they emit the least light.
Websites such as spaceweather.com and Facebook group Dunedin Aurora Hunters and Aurora Australis provide up-to-date information and tips on where best to view the Southern lights, with users posting images in real-time. Astro photographer Mikey Mackinven advises keen photographers to get to their designated position early to allow their eyes to adjust to the darkness (it takes about 15-20 minutes for the pupils to dilate and allow a sharper view of the night sky), try and incorporate a body of water into the picture for possible reflections, and take time away from the camera lens to observe the sky-show with your naked eye.
In Dunedin, Dr Griffin has recommended Hoopers and Papanui Inlet on the Otago Peninsula (a 25-minute drive from the central city) as among the best places to view the lights. Anywhere on the coastal road South of Brighton is also good, as is Tunnel Beach (10 minutes from the CBD), and the carpark at Sandfly Bay (20 minutes from the CBD). In March, Dr Griffin organised the first ever charter flight to view the Southern Lights. The trip crossed the International Date Line several times and provided a close-up view of the aurora. A second charter flight is scheduled for March next year, departing from Christchurch airport.