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Watching Lights in the Sky

By Reg Sutherland

In 1934, I was a school boy living at Pukemaori in Southland when I saw my first auroral display. Fascinated by the mystery of it all, I asked my parents what caused it. The sun reflecting off the ice in Antarctica, I was told. This was taught in schools and, even today, people believe it despite knowing that there is no sunshine in Antarctica over the winter months.

I went to Dunedin in 1941 to attend high school, and in the mid 1940s plucked up enough courage to venture up to the Beverly Begg Observatory where Geoff Couling was director at the time. Geoff taught us how to observe and report auroras. It was great to be involved in doing something for science. Carter Observatory posted out circulars to active observers giving news of events, but later only receipts were issued.

Early in the 1950s I got an old retired gold miner from Pukemaori interested in auroras. It was Herbie Wall who taught me about the stars and got me interested in a life-long study of astronomy. He went on to send in some excellent reports covering all-night displays, observing from his bed, which faced south for best viewing

In 1952 I moved to a farm in West Otago. Dark skies made auroral observing much easier. Many excellent displays were reported over the 1950s up until the 1957-8 International Geo-physical Year saw the DSIR equipped with the latest instruments, including radar on Bluff Hill, carry out the most intense observations ever attempted.

Mr I.L. Thompsen, then director of the Carter Observatory, wanted to be involved in measuring the height of auroras, using amateurs forming a base line and measuring angles of special features on the hour and each quarter-hour.

We had to construct our own instruments, simple devices to measure angles and altitudes. You had to make a little device with 180o marked around a quadrant to measure the altitude. I set mine up on a tree stump and got it lined up beautifully with a compass, but this meant that I'd lined it up on magnetic south instead of geographic south. I prised it up, twisted it around and got Achenar bang on. Unfortunately, not enough interest was raised and the project had to be cancelled. We still sent in our reports during the IGY, though.

In the early 1960s, the DSIR moved its headquarters from Invercargill to Lauder and continued to study the aurora from there. Amateur observations virtually ceased until 1979, when Dennis Goodman of Wellington formed a new auroral section within the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand.

Wanting to alert Dennis to interesting displays, I worked out a system where if I called him collect he wasn't to accept the call, but to consider it an alert. The system worked well, without bending the rules too far.

We have several rabbit shooters in West Otago and, as they stay out until about 3:00 am every clear night, I couldn't let this opportunity go by. They are now keen observers, and catch a few "quickies", short duration displays. One has a log book and he'll ring me up to report, saying "Here we are -- Thursday: 64 rabbits, 14 hares, 2 possums and an aurora".

During big displays, locals will phone in, wondering what is going on. It is surprising how many have never noticed an aurora before. Some even fear something is happening to the Earth.

Sometimes, long hours spent outside on cold winter nights recording a blow by blow description of ever-changing auroral forms makes one question one's mental stability, but I guess being involved in helping solve one of nature's most spectacular phenomena is reward enough.

Reg Sutherland is a keen amateur aurora observer and is currently involved in compiling a history of auroral observing in New Zealand.