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The Earth’s magnetic field performance for us.

Article and image by @Edward Roberts

When you hear the word Aurora, a few places come to mind. Iceland in the far North Atlantic or Alaska in the US. On a clear winter night you are more likely than not to see the excited particles dancing above your heads in an array of beautiful colours in each of those places. When you think of the Aurora in New Zealand you think of the lower south island like Invercargill and Dunedin, definitely not somewhere as far north as Hawkes Bay.

On the 11th of May the day after my 17th birthday, promising space weather conditions were shaping up for a visible NZ aurora, with the highest class of solar storm being forecasted; G5. I had been checking the weather forecast attentively since the start of the day, and all weather models pointed to clouds sitting just over the coastal hills of HB.
I was disappointed but hopeful that the cloud forecasts would be wrong, so I left the house to go to the gym with my older brother, planning to go chasing the Aurora in the early morning instead. Right as I walked out of the door I noticed something in the sky. It looked like a few faint searchlights that were really far away, just behind Te Mata peak looking east. I thought the lights were from an event happening at Craggy range as I didn’t believe the aurora could be seen with the naked eye in Hawkes Bay, let alone whilst looking directly east.
To investigate, I took a quick 5 second exposure with my phone, pointing at the lights in the sky. To my surprise, what I had mistaken to be searchlights above Te Mata peak were actually pillars of the Aurora! There were no visible clouds, and the event was so extreme that the aurora was visible to the naked eye not only looking south, but to the east and west aswell!

The plan to go to the gym at that time was scrapped as I forced my whole family to drive up the peak before everyone else noticed and did the same. We luckily managed to find a park at the top before most people decided to head up. I hastily got my camera onto a tripod, pointed it south and lowered the shutter speed. Because of how strong the Aurora was, exposures only needed to be 4-12 seconds long to get a bright and sharp image of the dancing lights. You could see pillars in the sky with your naked eye slowly shifting from side to side, and there was a noticeable pink-red colour in the sky in every direction. For the next 45 minutes or so we were sitting on an old mountain bike trail atop Te Mata peak, enjoying the display that the Earth’s magnetic field was performing to us. During this time, many people started driving up Te Mata peak to see the aurora for themselves.

If you have ever been to a ski field the morning after a large snowstorm, it was like that up at the peak!