SciTech

Unique 'super full moon' appears

Credit: Juan Fernandez/Art Staff Credit: Juan Fernandez/Art Staff

Last Saturday, anyone in Pittsburgh looking at the sky was treated to the sight of a large, celestial, reddish-silver ball in place of our regular moon. The spectacular ball was definitely a moon, but one that was nearly 14 percent wider and 30 percent brighter to our eyes. This moon was special in that it was a “super full moon,” larger and brighter than an ordinary moon due to its closer proximity to Earth.

Due to the moon’s elliptical orbit around Earth, it was just 221,567 miles away — about 16,000 miles closer than normal, and the closest it had been in 18 years. This doesn’t appear to be much of a difference, but the moon’s diameter is only 2,159 miles, making the moon almost seven and a half times closer to the Earth than normal.

But still, why did the moon look so much larger for only a 16,433 mile difference?

In an interview with USA Today, NASA scientist Jim Garvin said that “a ‘Super moon’ is a situation when the moon is slightly closer to Earth in its orbit than on average, and this effect is most noticeable when it occurs at the same time as a full moon. So, the moon may seem bigger although the difference in its distance from Earth is only a few percent at such times.” Since there was a full moon at the same time, the moon looked significantly larger to us.

The super full moon has also attracted a large amount of media attention because of a misplaced connection with the recent Japan disaster. This was brought on when an astrologer, Richard Nolle, claimed that this was an extreme, super full moon and therefore chaos such as “huge storms, earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters can be expected to wreak havoc on Earth.” At this point it should be noted that astrology is not a validated science, merely an attempt to make connections between astronomical and mystical events.

The main concern with this speculation seems to be that in the past the super full moon has often accompanied natural disasters. For example, the years 1955 and 1992 were particularly heavy in natural disasters and coincided with super full moon occurrences. However, most of the other times, there haven’t been any natural disasters. In a video NASA placed on YouTube, it says a super full moon in 1983 passed without incident and also references the “almost super full moon” in 2008, that also passed without incident.

So can the super full moon cause natural disasters? There is a little logic behind this apparently crazy question. According to the website Life’s Little Mysteries, the gravitational force of the moon on the Earth causes the ebb and flow of oceans’ tides. At the same time, the moon’s gravity can cause minute ebbs and flows on land masses as well, known as “land tides” or “solid Earth tides.” These tides tend to be highest during full and new moons, as the sun and moon are aligned on the same or opposite sides of the Earth.

These minor land or water changes do not result in disasters of such a caliber as the Japan earthquake or tsunami. According to Garvin, “The effects on Earth from a super full moon are minor, and according to studies by terrestrial seismologists and volcanologists, the combination of the moon being at its closest to Earth in its orbit, and being in its ‘full moon’ configuration [relative to the Earth and sun] should not affect the internal energy balance of the Earth since there are lunar tides every day.”

Internet speculation has generated a lot of theories about the super full moon, but in reality, the super full moon is just a regular moon phase. Though brighter and larger in appearance, the super full moon has minimal effects on Earth and is not a scary event. It is merely an opportunity to view the magnificent colors of the moon up close.