“Aurora Alert!” This was a text that I got from a work colleague last Saturday night. It meant that I had to get my butt out the door fast, get away from Lake Tekapo’s village lights and go somewhere that was facing south. It was an opportunity to get a glimpse of my first aurora.
I work for Earth and Sky, home of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve (I.D.S.R) and the Mt John Observatory. The Aoraki Mackenzie I.D.S.R. is one of only three gold tier status dark sky reserves in the world. Because of the clarity of the skies here and the lack of light pollution, it’s one of the best places in New Zealand, if not the world, to see stars. The Aurora Australis has been seen here in the reserve quite often over the last few years. An aurora is caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun with atoms in the earth’s atmosphere and is seen especially near the northern and southern magnetic poles.
The text from Mili, my work colleague, came through around 8.30pm. So I headed over to The Cairns golf course to try to see the aurora. It’s a 20 minute walk from my house. When I got there I stood looking at the horizon facing south for about ten minutes and could see a glow on the skyline. But there wasn’t anything unusual happening, so I turned back and headed for home. In the meantime I was still texting with Mili to see if she could see anything. She picked me up in her car along with another friend of hers, Maria and drove us back to the golf course.
I said to her ”I can’t see any colours in the sky” and she replied “You’ll just see a glow on the horizon”. So I was actually looking at an aurora earlier, I just didn’t realise it. Within ten minutes of getting out of the car, we could see the glow getting a bit brighter and all of a sudden a beam of light appeared, stretching from the horizon right up to the sky and it got stronger. Then within five minutes another beam of light appeared and then three more in a row off to the left (like you can see in the photo below). I had never seen anything like it before.
Mili and Maria said “Wow, that’s pretty strong”. They have seen three or four auroras here so they know what they’re talking about when they say it’s strong. We all started shouting “woohoo” and jumping around like nine-year old kids. Mili and Maria brought their cameras and tripods with them. It was great to look at the sky and see the aurora with the naked eye but even better to see the colours of the aurora in the photos they were taking.
You will only see the colours of an aurora with the naked eye if the aurora is really intense. When the aurora that we were looking at got to it’s strongest point, we could see a faint pink tinge at the top of one of the beams. But in the photos you could see the yellow/green colour at the base of the aurora, then a very strong red and a pink at the top. The beams of light were strongly visible with the naked eye and they would die off and reappear again in a different spot. So they kept moving. They reminded me of floodlights on a football pitch that point upwards into the sky, only these pillars of light were not as powerful or as bright. The more intense the aurora, the higher the beams shot up into the sky.
We stood there watching it for about two hours. The temperature dropped substantially during this time and it was freezing cold. Still, it was exhilarating, a once in a lifetime experience for me. I’d been trying to get to see an aurora since I moved here to Lake Tekapo a year and a half ago. Quite a few auroras have been seen here over the last few months. There was an outstanding one on the 17th March at 3am in the morning but I was down in Dunedin, so I missed it.
I also went to the Lofoten Islands off the west coast of Norway in March 2010 to try and get to see the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis. I did see a glow in the sky there but no beams of light. I was expecting to see colours in the sky and because there were no colours, I didn’t think it was an aurora. There were German photographers who were taking photos of the night sky that night and at the end of the two hours standing outside, they showed me photos they had taken. You could clearly see the green and red lights of the aurora.
So I’m very happy to have seen this aurora, especially in New Zealand, one of my favourite countries in the world. It makes New Zealand even more special for me.(Mili Villamil took these photos of the aurora on 14th April 2015).