Arrivals & Departures Aurora Australis: Nature's light show, closer to home

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

We’ve all heard of the Northern Lights, but what about the Southern Lights?

During astronomer Dr Ian Griffin’s four years living in Dunedin, New Zealand, he saw the Southern Lights – the Aurora Australis – more than 150 times.

New Zealand’s proximity to the lights, its isolation and lack of light pollution makes it a perfect viewing spot for the phenomenon.

Dr Griffin, who is currently director of the Otago Museum, said that while the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) were a bucket list item for many, the lesser-known Southern Lights were no less spectacular.

According to Dr Griffin, the Southern Lights appear from just over the southern horizon in Dunedin, so depending on where you are viewing them, the lights are often framed by hills and bodies of water, causing reflections which are particularly striking for keen photographers. 

“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 said.

The Aurora Australis is caused by electrically charged particles from the sun getting trapped in the Earth’s magnetic atmosphere, causing a light show.

The best time 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.

In late May this year the lights were clearly visible in New Zealand and a green glow could be seen from Tasmania.

To maximise your chances of seeing the aurora, Dr Griffin advised planning your viewing around the phases of the moon: the last quarter and first quarter moons are the best times.

Websites such as and Facebook group "Dunedin Aurora Hunters and Aurora Australis" provide up-to-date information and tips on where best to view the Southern Lights.

In Dunedin, Dr Griffin recommended Hoopers and Papanui Inlet on the Otago Peninsula as among the best places to view the lights. Anywhere on the coastal road south of Brighton was also good, as was Tunnel Beach and the carpark at Sandfly Bay.

Dr Griffin will charter a flight to view the Southern Lights, in March next year.

Top image: Aurora Australis during a April 2017 storm. Picture by Dr Ian Griffin, Otago University.

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