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Solar Tsunamis Showcase


Space weather goes unnoticed by most of us, which is a good thing because it means a tidal wave of solar particles hasn’t collided with Earth’s magnetosphere, crippled power grids and wiped out our communications systems. Not recently, anyway. There has been extreme space weather in the past: the 1859 Carrington Event caused telegraph system failures across Europe and North America, electrocuting operators and starting fires—and there will be again. The key is to understand what’s coming and prepare for it, something Tūhura Otago Museum can help with.

Its new science showcase, Solar Tsunamis Parawhenua Kōmaru, opened at the Otago Museum in October 2023 and will soon be visiting Hokitika as the outreach arm of the Solar Tsunami Endeavour Programme. The Museum is working in partnership with Professor Craig Rodger of the University of Otago, who is leading the programme’s investigation into the potential impact of extreme space weather events on this country’s energy infrastructure. The groundbreaking research is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and Tūhura Otago Museum’s outreach team is sharing the findings with the New Zealand public.

Dr Marijn Kouwenhoven (a senior science engagement coordinator at the Museum) is excited about hitting the road with the showcase. “It’ll be making some really useful information accessible to New Zealand’s communities”, she says. “Kiwis are great at banding together and following procedure when disaster hits, but that's because we understand the risks of events like tsunamis and earthquakes. Very few people are familiar with the causes and consequences of geomagnetic storms, so the showcase is going to address that gap.”

As the five-year research programme unfolds, Tūhura Otago Museum’s showcase will be helping Kiwis around the country understand its results. “A lot of the science underpinning the programme is difficult to visualise”, says Dr Kouwenhoven. “We can’t look out the window and see Earth’s magnetic field, for example, or the electricity running through our power lines, so Solar Tsunamis had several interactives custom built to make the science easier to explore.”

The free showcase will be hosted for a month by the MTFJ team in the Council’s Pakiwaitara building, where the public will be able to get a hands-on experience in the realms of magnetism and geology as they learn about the potential impacts of solar activity on New Zealand’s power grid.

“This is such an exciting opportunity for young and old alike to learn more about earth and space sciences,” says Mayor Helen Lash. “I really appreciate the Tūhara Otago Musuem’s generosity in bringing this event to Westland. It will be a great activity for the last week of the school holidays, and then I hope that the local schools will make time to visit when they start back for the year.”

Among the activities is a novel game that uses water to simulate the overloading of our electricity grid, challenging kids to divert the “current” and keep the grid operational. People will also be able to see what aurora visibility is like around the globe at a given moment, and there is a giant plasma ball that lets you interact with the material stars are made of. As Dr Kouwenhoven says, “Not all space weather is something to be worried about. Sometimes it produces incredibly beautiful sights, like the southern and northern lights. We want to help people understand the risks but also marvel at what’s happening overhead.”

To further aid that mission, the showcase weaves pūrākau (legends) into its narrative. “Māori have always been observational scientists”, says Te Wharau Walker, Science Engagement Coordinator Māori at the Museum. “They tracked the movements of the stars and told stories to help conceptualise the processes unfolding above them, like Māui slowing down Tamanuiterā (the Sun) to make the days longer.”

That story, along with many others, will soon be travelling to Hokitika. You can catch the showcase at the Pakiwaitara Building, 41 Weld Street Hokitika, from 20 January to 25 February 2024, 10am – 3pm daily. Entry is free.


Media enquiries to:

Emma Rae, Strategy and Communications Advisor