12 May, 2024 03:24 AM4 mins to read

Fascinated Kiwis collectively braced the cold on Saturday night to try to catch a glimpse or snap a picture of Aurora Australis’ lights sweeping across the country as part of a geomagnetic storm.

Aurora Australis - Figure 1
Photo New Zealand Herald

Hawke’s Bay set the scene for incredible video and photos, with sky watchers taking to iconic spots like Te Mata Peak and the Ātea a Rangi Star Compass to experience the wonder of it all.

How long will it last? As Mitchell Hageman finds out, depending on your cloud cover, US scientists think there’s a “good shot” at another sighting over the next few days.

Many might agree with Hawke’s Bay astronomer Gary Sparks that Saturday’s night sky “lit up like a fireworks display”.

Standing in his garden at about 9pm, the aurora-hunting veteran of two decades said the sheer strength of Aurora Australis took him by surprise.

“To see the aurora so vividly and far north as this is extremely rare,” Sparks said.

“It was just about as impressive as you will ever see it from Hawke’s Bay.”

Aurora Australis - Figure 2
Photo New Zealand Herald
Incredible shots of Aurora Australis in Hawke's Bay could continue over the coming nights. Photo / Connull Lang

Auroras result from magnetosphere disruptions by solar wind, altering charged particle trajectories from the Sun.

These particles then rise into the upper atmosphere, creating colourful displays.

“The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity. It just so happens the Sun is approaching the peak of its 11-year cycle,” Sparks said.

“At the peak of that 11-year cycle, we’re more likely to see this kind of activity than we are at other times.”

The big question remains as to whether the aurora will be seen for the next few nights, and it seems like those who missed out could be in luck.

Calling in from the Science Weather Prediction Centre in the US, operations chief Mike Bettwy said there’s a “good shot” that people in New Zealand will see the Aurora on Sunday night and even Monday night.

Aurora Australis - Figure 3
Photo New Zealand Herald

“Another strong flare departed the sun earlier today (US time), and we had one last night as well, and they are both heading towards the Earth’s atmosphere. Once they arrive, they look to be pretty strong.”

'Like fireworks': Aurora Australis captured in Central Hawke's Bay. Photo / Paul Taylor

Sparks agreed that the volume of material from the sun was a key factor in the longevity of aurora.

“It’s hard to predict how long these effects will last,” he noted.

“Usually, these things only last one or two nights, but this one had been more persistent due to the sheer volume of material that the sun has blasted off.”

Sighting the aurora also depends on how much cloud is around and how much light pollution there is.

MetService meteorologist Clare O’Connor said Hawke’s Bay appeared slightly cloudier on Sunday and Monday nights than on Saturday.

Aurora Australis - Figure 4
Photo New Zealand Herald

“You’ll notice a few clouds around on Sunday. There will probably be enough gaps to see something if it is strong enough to be seen. It would have to be a similar strength to be seen this far north in Hawke’s Bay,” she said.

“Monday night doesn’t look as good, so Sunday would be the better night of the two nights.”

Those heading out again are also advised to wrap up warm as temperatures are set to stay low.

Tania Carrasco captured an incredible sight at the Ātea a Rangi Star Compass near Waitangi Regional Park in Hawke's Bay. Photo / Tania Carrasco

While people jumped in their cars to drive up Te Mata Peak to snap the aurora from Havelock North, Tania Carrasco and her family captured some incredible moments at the serene Ātea a Rangi Star Compass near Waitangi Regional Park near Napier.

Aurora Australis - Figure 5
Photo New Zealand Herald

“We decided to go for a drive and find the darkest place to watch the lights,” she said

“We didn’t want to miss this opportunity because you never know if conditions will be as amazing as they were on Saturday.”

On the way back from Haumoana on the cape coast, the group stopped at the Ātea at about 7.20pm to see how it looked.

“It was the perfect combination of culture, nature, sparkling and the magic of the stars. It was an absolutely beautiful experience to check off the bucket list.”

Another Hawke’s Bay resident, Nina O’Connor, described her experience at the Soldier’s Memorial Wood Carving in Rissington as “surreal”.

“It was deafeningly quiet outside but we could hear some moreporks. The sky was dark until your eyes adjusted, and you could see the pink come through.”

Aurora Australis - Figure 6
Photo New Zealand Herald

She said there wasn’t a cloud in the sky where she was.

Sparks and Bettwy said looking south or getting further south would be the best way to view the aurora.

Nina O'Connor said her experience at the Soldier's Memorial Wood Carving in Rissington during the Aurora Australis was 'surreal'. Photo / Nina O'Connor

Mitchell Hageman joined Hawke’s Bay Today in January 2023. From his Napier base, he writes regularly on social issues, arts and culture, and the community. He has a particular love for stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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