Why New Zealand is the best country for cloud spotters

Sunset clouds above Aorangi Mt Cook.
Sunset clouds above Aorangi Mt Cook. Photo credit: Getty Images

For anyone who has flown over New Zealand, the glorious sight of large and expansive cloud formations is likely to be a familiar one.

The country's unique location and abundance of mountains and volcanoes make it ideal for people who get enthusiastic about looking at clouds.

Don't think that's a thing? Well, it is, there's even a word for it: 'Nephophilia', meaning someone with a love, fondness or obsession for clouds.

There's an entire online community called the Cloud Appreciation Society dedicated to it.

Fog can cause havoc for travellers but stunning photos for everyone else.
Fog can cause havoc for travellers but stunning photos for everyone else. Photo credit: Getty Images

Given the love and enthusiasm they have for puffy balls of fluffy looking vapour, it's only natural that places would lay claim to being the best in the world to cloud spot, including Aotearoa.

A competition being run by Jetstar hopes to turn part time nephophiliacs into full-time cloud chasers. Winners could earn the title of the 'best cloud' that's on offer, as well as the a grand prize of a year's free travel.

New Zealanders entering the competition have a good chance of winning due to the abundance of cloud formations on display in the skies above New Zealand.

So, what is it about New Zealand that makes our clouds so dramatic and interesting?

According to Philip Duncan from WeatherWatch.co.nz, one of the key factors that gives New Zealand such a unique skyscape is where it is on the globe. 

We live in the Roaring Forties: 

More than half of the country is smack bang in the Roaring Forties, the famous belt of gale force westerlies that circles the Southern Hemisphere from the lower North Island down towards Antarctica

This dramatic belt of wind and weather brings us some of our biggest storms, but it also creates dramatic and wonderful cloudscapes over New Zealand.

Sunrise in Auckland
Sunrise in Auckland Photo credit: Getty Images

"The mountains and ranges make for stunning high cloud, which is especially dramatic at sunrise and sometimes sunset, too," Duncan said.

NZ's original name is Aotearoa, 'The Land of the Long White Cloud': 

Our mountains and ranges do two things – they make clouds thicker and bigger and also create high cloud patterns which can make for incredible photos. 

Mt Cook / Aorangi, when translated, means "the Cloud piercer".
Mt Cook / Aorangi, when translated, means "the Cloud piercer". Photo credit: Getty Images

"It doesn't matter which way the wind is blowing – if you're on the other side of the hills or ranges, the chances are you'll see some award-winning cloud formations. Our tallest mountain, Mt Cook / Aorangi, when translated, means "the Cloud piercer". 


Mt Taranaki is well known for creating unique and stunning clouds. The most famous is a 'cap cloud', where it looks like the mountain is wearing a hat. 

'Cap Cloud' above Mt Taranaki
'Cap Cloud' above Mt Taranaki Photo credit: Getty Images

This happens when cloud forms over an isolated mountain peak, formed by the cooling and condensation of moisture-rich air coming off the Tasman Sea.

"Winds push the air up the mountain giving the appearance of a cloud that just 'sits' on the top," says Duncan.

"You might see this on other volcanoes you fly over, such as Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu in the Central Plateau. While many other nations have volcanoes, few have such perfectly shaped ones directly on flight paths with such clear, pollution-free skies."

The "Nor'west Arch":

This phenomenon creates a blanket-like cloud appearing as though it's being pulled and draped east of the Southern Alps when there’s a strong westerly wind. 

A 'Nor'west Arch' cloud.
A 'Nor'west Arch' cloud. Photo credit: Getty Images

"The Arch has a defined clean edge to it where it stops, which makes it look like the edge of a blanket then clear blue sky follows," says Duncan.

"There are very few places on earth where this happens and Canterbury is one of the best places on earth for it."

NZ has big fluffy sub-tropical clouds:

Something air travellers may notice is our giant fluffy clouds, known as cumulus and cumulonimbus. 

A massive cumulonimbus cloud.
A massive cumulonimbus cloud. Photo credit: Getty Images

In New Zealand, we live in a climate that isn't too tropical and isn't too cold – we're in the 'Goldilocks belt of weather', which means we can get a taste of the tropical clouds but without the drama of daily tropical thunderstorms. 

These towering clouds are most frequent in the upper North Island, around Waikato, Auckland and Northland in our warmer months. Caused by rising air, these clouds can stand tall and dramatic, reaching many kilometres into the sky, while the skies around them are deep blue. 

The Barber:


It's known 'The Barber', because locals say "it's so cold it can cut you."
It's known 'The Barber', because locals say "it's so cold it can cut you." Photo credit: Getty Images

A unique cloud formation can happen on the West Coast in Greymouth when a nor'east breeze causes cloud to tumble down the ranges like a "cloud waterfall". It's known 'The Barber', because locals say "it's so cold it can cut you."

Geo-thermal clouds:

Our unique, shaky isles geothermal set-up can also make for stunning clouds in the right conditions. 

Geo-thermal clouds in Rotorua.
Geo-thermal clouds in Rotorua. Photo credit: Getty Images

Places like Rotorua, Mt Ruapehu and Taupo all have steam and geothermal connected clouds. 

So, next time you're feeling down about a cloudy overcast day, think of the nephophiliacs who are having the time of their lives.