A timely reminder of insignificance

In each of our lifetimes there will be moments which resonate long after they happened.

We can look back and revisit these events, maybe just a handful of them, with utter clarity, so brilliant were they that they burnt a photographic-like impression in our minds.

Of all the millions of things which happened to people around the world at the weekend, there was something which a huge number experienced, though at different times in different hemispheres.

As the aurora shimmered and glowed brightly through the short, summer, northern night, and then pulled out all the stops for us in the southern hemisphere during our long, cold, almost-winter Saturday night, we were transfixed by its magnificence and by wonder that something so ethereal was really occurring.

We lived through it as individuals, and our responses to it were individual ones. But, for a few brief hours, hundreds of millions of people across the globe had a shared focus and our differences and prosaic lives melted away under the veil of the vivid pinks, the shimmering reds and twisting greens of a cosmic event.

While the solar storms which caused the southern and northern lights to glow so fiercely are not over, with the Sun now approaching its 11-year maximum in the sunspot-cycle, Saturday’s aurora will stick in the mind. Where were you when JFK was shot? Where were you when the February earthquake happened? Where were you for the aurora?

The media were as excited as anyone else, firstly with Transpower’s grid emergency notice on Saturday — its second in as many days — as a consequence of the solar tsunami of geomagnetic and voltage-oscillating plasma racing towards Earth, and secondly once the heavens began flickering.

It is possible, as some commentators insisted, that this was a "once in a lifetime" event. That might be true for those living further north in New Zealand, and closer to the equator elsewhere. But for those of us in the South, the aurora australis is a relatively regular visitor, though this was probably the most intense example for 20 years or so.

Behind the indisputable beauty of the aurora, we have to remember that coronal mass ejections, as they are called, can be bad news for Earth. The charged particles caught up in the "blast" of the solar tsunami can play havoc with our electrical networks and communications links by rapidly altering voltages and generating unwanted currents inside long transmission lines.

The Aurora at Kaka Point last night. Photo: Katy Lockwood
The aurora at Kaka Point. Photo: Katy Lockwood
The result, as the world has seen on several occasions during the past 150 years or so, can be devastating, with wires burning-out and transformers exploding, leading to lengthy power blackouts with all their dire consequences. University of Otago physics professor Craig Rodger, a space weather specialist, has been working with Transpower to come up with a plan to cope with a solar tsunami of a much larger magnitude than that of the past few days. That work was sparked by an event in November 2001, which burned out a transformer at Halfway Bush.

Prof Rodger says it would be a good idea for Kiwis to be prepared for such incidents and the possibility of losing power for a few days. He also says solar tsunami should be on the National Risk Register to ensure a robust and co-ordinated nationwide response.

In the meantime, treasure the sights of Saturday night. And, if they make us feel tiny and utterly inconsequential for a while, is that such a bad thing?

End of ‘Sunday’

Another stellar performance came to a close at the weekend, with the final instalment of the outstanding current affairs programme Sunday.

After 22 years of providing New Zealand with much-needed, in-depth and insightful journalism, TVNZ has axed the show to save money.

It makes you wonder about the people behind such decisions, and is hugely concerning at a time when thorough investigative journalism has never been needed more.

For its size, New Zealand used to have some good television programmes, with local and regional shows which informed and entertained.

Now, as some have suggested, we might actually have the worst lineup of programmes in the world.

Thank you to all the Sunday team for your sterling efforts over the years.