'Not something anyone should expect': Stunning aurora lights up NZ as far north as Auckland

An aurora caused by a "particularly strong geomagnetic storm" lit up the heavens over New Zealand on Thursday night as far north as Auckland.

Photographer Matthew Davison sent Newshub pictures he took of the stunning night sky on the city's western coast. 

"We had almost 10 hours of Kp7(G3) geomagnetic conditions," he said. "It needs to be this high to have any chance of spotting colour in the skies across Auckland."

The view from Auckland's west coast.
The view from Auckland's west coast. Photo credit: Matthew Davison.

The Kp index measures disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field caused by particles ejected from the sun. G3 is a "strong storm" capable of interfering with satellite electronics - and producing impressive displays when particles hit the atmosphere and heat up. 

"The moon set just before 8pm," said Davison. "Auroras, particularly when capturing them this far north, are diminished by the light of the moon. Cloud cover was also a problem, but thankfully the skies opened up for a short one hour long window, enabling me to capture these images.

"Everything really just came together."

The view from Auckland's west coast.
The view from Auckland's west coast. Photo credit: Matthew Davison.

Davison's right to acknowledge the role luck played in getting the amazing shots. 

"It's definitely not something anyone should expect," Stardome Observatory astronomer Rob Davison (no relation to Matthew) told Newshub. "Anywhere in New Zealand, normally if you see an aurora it's towards the horizon, rather than right up ahead. If it's overhead in Auckland, that is extremely rare." 

He said even when there's a massive geomagnetic storm in space, that doesn't necessarily mean we'll get a show here on Earth - and that's not to mention the fickle weather. 

"You can have all of space and everything on your side, then the weather will come in and ruin it. Or you you'll be in the Auckland city centre with all the light pollution and you could have an amazing show above your head and you probably wouldn't realise." 

Rob used to live in Tekapo near the Dark Sky Reserve, an internationally recognised spot where the skies are clear and free of light pollution. 

"A couple of times a year if I saw one - even once a year - if I saw one that was spectacular with really good definition, you could see pillars and lights and stuff, I'd be very happy with that. this far north, it's not that common at all. 

"Anyone who wants to see Southern Lights in New Zealand should definitely not try and do it up here because you could be waiting for years and years and years to see anything like yesterday." 

Matthew said he's travelled the world to see aurora, but that's not an option at the moment thanks to the pandemic.

"I have had to travel great distances previously to capture the aurora - including all the way to Alaska to capture the Northern Lights. I've also witnessed the Southern Lights in Invercargill, but it is always difficult trying to organise last minute flights - or not being able to leave Auckland under lockdown. 

"Being able to see them in Auckland, right in my backyard is a real treat."

Significance for Māori 

The Southern Lights hold a special place for southern Māori. 

"The kupu for the aurora is Tahu Nui a Raki - and the name for Rakirua (Stewart Island) comes from the pūrakau associated with the aurora," Stardome kaiako o mātai arorangi (astronomy educator) Josh Kirkley told Newshub.

"From what I remember hearing from my hapū in Bluff... Rakiura was named after the rangatira Te Rakitamau. He left his hapū and travelled to another wāhi to ask for the marriage of the eldest daughter of another rangatira but she rejected him. The youngest daughter also rejected him, so he left blushing from embarrassment. 

"Rakiura was named after him since you can frequently see the red glow of the aurora from there."

Any aurora visible in Auckland is even more impressive when seen at lower latitudes. Chris Watson sent Newshub photos taken at Ivon Wilson Park, near Te Anau.

The view from near Te Anau.
The view from near Te Anau. Photo credit: Chris Watson.

As for whether we can expect more Southern Lights, Rob said the signs are good, with the sun heading into the busy part of its 11-year cycle known as the 'solar maximum'. But ultimately, it's impossible to say.

"You might have really good solar activity and it all looks very promising, and you go out all night and nothing really happens. You get a little bit of warning like a couple of days that there's good solar activity that means it's likely to happen, then you just need a bit of luck." 

The next big astronomical event on the New Zealand calendar is in two weeks' time - a lunar eclipse on the night of Friday, November 19. While it's technically just a partial eclipse, Rob says the Earth's shadow will cover 97 percent of the moon, so will be worth staying up for.