The ‘Supermoon’

Anxious journalists and amateur scientists have spent the past several weeks fretting over the larger-than-usual moon set to appear in our night sky this Saturday, March 19. On that night, the moon will be fully illuminated at the same time as it reaches its lunar perigee, the closest point in its elliptical orbit around the Earth.

Astrologer Richard Nolle has branded the event an “extreme Supermoon” and spurred fears that the moon’s proximity could cause natural disasters here on Earth. He did so before last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. But when Need to Know called the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) for more information, officials there told us there was nothing to worry about and there is no connection between this gigantic moon and natural disasters. “This is not something that astronomers are paying attention to,” said NOAO astronomer and public information officer Dr. Stephen Pompea.

So what’s really happening on March 19? Here are five things you need to know about the Supermoon, compiled with Pompea’s help.

1. Supermoons happen all the time.

The moon has an elliptical orbit, which means that it is closer to Earth during some parts of the month than others. During the lunar apogee, the point at which the moon is farthest from Earth, there are about 252,711 miles (406,700 km) between the centers of the two celestial bodies. During the lunar perigee, which occurs every month, the moon is more than 30,000 miles (50,300 km) closer. The term “Supermoon” refers to a full moon that occurs near that perigee. “Although it sounds extraordinary,” said Pompea, “it is not, and it happens frequently.”

An “extreme Supermoon” is a new or full moon that occurs at the exact lunar perigee. According to Nolle’s website, Earth experienced extreme Supermoons in 2010, 2008, and 2005.

2. Don’t expect the world to end.

Yes, the 19-year lunar Metonic cycle, in which the phases of the moon land on roughly the same calendar days as they did in the previous 19-year cycle, might mean that the lunar perigee will be slightly closer on March 19 than it has been since 1992, and tides might rise a little bit in response. “When the moon is closer, tides are bigger,” said Pompea. But don’t expect anything catastrophic. The moon is only about a thousand miles closer to the Earth than it was during last month’s lunar perigee. “We had a big, big tide last month, and we’re going to have one next month. This isn’t an isolated event, it’s something that’s pretty similar to last month and will be pretty similar to next month.” Pompea conceded that marginally higher tides could mean trouble in some coastal areas but said that the likelihood of global problems resulting from the perigee is very low.

3. Past “extreme Supermoons” have had less-than-dramatic results.

Some commentators have tried to connect the dates of past extreme Supermoons to environmental disasters, pointing to events like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which occurred 15 days before the January 10 extreme Supermoon, and Hurricane Katrina, which occurred more than seven months after, as proof of the moon’s power. The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan has no doubt added fuel to these theories. But this argument, which attributes a year’s worth of disaster to one night’s lunar activity, has not helped Nolle’s case. The facts don’t point to any correspondence between the lunar perigee and those events, Pompea said, adding that people who are convinced that the Supermoon triggers natural disasters need to “show us. You need to tell us, ‘the Supermoon was on that date and this happened.’”

“If you try hard enough you can chronologically associate almost any natural disaster/event to anything in the night sky,” astronomer David Reneke told news.com.au, dismissing the theories.

4. Don’t call it a Supermoon when you’re talking to a professional.

Forget that dramatic title, said Pompea. “No astronomer would recognize the term ‘Supermoon.’ It’s not something we’ve ever heard of and it’s not something we’d use.”  Nolle, the man who invented the term, is a “certified professional astrologer” whose website boasts that he predicted the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, the recent recession and Hurricane Katrina, among many other major events, using astrology. Nolle first used the world “Supermoon” in a 1979 article in Horoscope Magazine.

5. Expect a bright, beautiful full moon that looks a lot like all the others this year.

The moon will definitely be closer on March 19 than it has been in a long time, but we may not be able to tell. Pompea says that the moon will probably not be obviously larger or brighter on that night, though the difference between this moon and its predecessors would probably be evident in a comparison of two photographs. Other experts, like NASA astronomer Dave Williams, are slightly more optimistic. “Because it’s a full moon at its closest approach,” he told ABC News, “it’s going to be big and really bright.” Williams recommended that you take the time to see it. “This is the biggest full moon that you will ever see,” he said. “You will see the moon again, but this is as big as it gets.”

 

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/NJ-Chatham/618922592 NJ Chatham

    My Daddy always called it a “Carolina Moon” and I do today! “Carolina moon keep shining – shining on the one who waits for me…”

  • http://twitter.com/francatorce Francisco S

    Para los esotéricos …

  • Ddalft

    Ooh, one more psuedo-science “fact” to get the believers all hyped up. Thanks for the real science purveyors out there!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Mawnstirmaker Mawny Mawnstir Maker Black

    thank god i was so freaking out, just kidding!

  • Winthertina

    pay attention, fellow earthlings :)

  • Supermalvinder

    can we have sensible write ups please what a waste of energy…

  • Robert Hoyle
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000239119128 Lisa Deyermond

    super moon,warm moon,blue moon,new moon…its tugging at my emotions~

  • Sandy_beebe

    well if any thing strange happens at my house, i’m going to complain that you guys told me it was all normal lololol

  • Mxipp

    And after you’ve enjoyed the “supermoon” go sign up for a couple basic science classes.

  • Victoriasblooms

    I live in Banning, Ca. I went out to see it but the sky was overcast and much to my regret I could not see it.

  • http://www.ehustleonline.com Carla Easley

    Unfortunately I missed the whole experience because I was sleeping. :(

  • Samuelmessingerm

    This is consistent with the Jewish calendar. This month we have 2 months of Adar and the 19th is our holiday of Purim. Also we have a 19 year calendar…..maybe the writer of this article should consult with his local Chabad Rabbi for details

  • Geralyn

    my son was concieved during a supermoon in 1978!! strange story cuz we were sleeping and woke during the act and I knew the next morning I was pregnant and predicted his sex, birth date and birth weight and the only thing I was off on was he weighed 1 1/2 ounces more than I predicted.

  • Lindsey284

    technically, if you would have had intercourse that night, your egg would not have been immediately fertilized so you probably would not have been “pregnant” the next morning…though you obviously had the notion that you were going to be.

  • Dj_koi

    @ Samuelmessingerm: You’re kidding, right? I mean, surely the whole point of the article is that at any time when we might endeavor to know THE TRUTH about the world, or, well… really, the Universe in which we live, then at those times we ought not look to pseudo-science, hocus-pocus or foolish superstitions (such as judaism) for, in the end, NOT ONE OF THEM has ANYTHING in the way of real answers to offer (no matter how deeply entrenched in our society any of this tomfoolery may be). It is only through rigorous collection of data, and analysis by the scientific method and mathematics that we get credible and valid answers. In my view, all the rest are self-serving lies and misinformation which, if you are NOT joking, you would do well to give up.

  • Antoniay

    That was warning! He dont want us to worry but all heck is about to break loose  (read the book of Revelation its going to tell you whats about to happen)