How Supermoons Work

How Supermoons Work
A tree is silhouetted as a supermoon rises over Heho, Myanmar's Shan state, on Nov. 14, 2016. YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

Every now and then, you'll hear about the imminent arrival of a supermoon and how it's going to be really amazing to see because it's going to be so huge and so close.

And if you do gaze into the sky that evening, it actually can be a pretty cool sight. The term supermoons isn't one used by astronomers, but people use it to refer to a full or new moon that is near the closest point of its orbit around Earth. Depending on the exact distance between the earth and the moon that evening, a supermoon can be as much as 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than the usual moon [source: Mathewson].

Supermoons have become a popular sensation in recent years, with scores of people posting snapshots of them on social media. Some stargazers stage supermoon viewing parties on rooftops, or travel to special locations — such as the mountains or the beach — to get a more spectacular view. Others put together playlists of songs to listen to while gazing at supermoons, such as Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street" or Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow" [source: Fernandez].

Supermoon mania may have reached its peak intensity on Nov. 13, 2016. That's when the satellite was 221,524 miles (356,508 kilometers) from Earth, the closest supermoon occurrence since Jan. 26, 1948, when it was 30 miles (48 kilometers) closer. (The average moon distance is 238,900 miles or 384,472 kilometers from Earth) [source: Netburn].

So what's all the fascination about? What actually causes a supermoon, and what sort of effects does it have upon the earth? We'll answer those and other questions in this article.

What Causes a Supermoon?

What Causes a Supermoon?
The moon rises behind a cable car on in London's Docklands on Nov. 13, 2016. GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images

As we mentioned previously, "supermoon" isn't a scientific term. By several accounts, it was first coined back in the late 1970s by an astrologer, Richard Nolle, who defined it as a new or full moon that occurs when the moon is within 90 percent of its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit — 224,641 miles or 361,524 kilometers from the planet [source: King].

That definition, as astronomers point out, is a pretty easy one to fit. For all the hype that surrounds them, supermoons actually aren't all that rare, occurring between four and six times each year [source: McClure and Byrd].

Supermoons happen because the moon doesn't orbit the earth in a perfect circle, but rather in an elliptical path. That means its distance from the Earth can vary in the course of a month, from 252,000 miles at its farthest point, which is called the apogee, to roughly 225,800 miles at its closest approach, which is called the perigee [source: King].

But the lunar orbit isn't perfectly regular, either, because it's affected by the sun's gravity. So on some occasions, the moon's perigee is closer than others [source:]

Perigees happen on average every 29.53 days [source:McClure and Byrd].

But a few times a year, the sun, moon and Earth line up just right, so that a perigee coincides with the most dramatic phases of the moon — the new moon, when the orb is just a sliver — or the full moon. That's when we notice because the moon can appear to be slightly bigger and significantly brighter than normal [source: King].

That said, the distinction between a supermoon (what astronomers call a lunar perigree) and a regular-sized moon isn't so great that it's obvious to everyone, especially if you're not a regular gazer at the skies. If you want to make the difference clearer, astronomy writer Bob King suggests fashioning a homemade measuring device that he calls a "supermoon sighter."

Take a pair of scissors, and cut a series of slots of varying widths in an index card. Then hold the card parallel to your face and at arms' length while looking at the moon with one eye, and pick the slot into which the moon fits most snugly. Mark the date next to it. Then, when you hear the announcement of the next supermoon, repeat the procedure, and you should be able to see the difference.

Moonageddon or Myth? Supermoon Misconceptions

Moonageddon or Myth? Supermoon Misconceptions
Two men play in front of the supermoon in Turkey on Aug. 31, 2015. Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Since the idea of supermoons was dreamed up by an astrologer, it's not surprising that phenomenon is seen by some as a sign of future events, and perhaps even as a cause of them — a "Moonageddon," as one Australian news website put it.

If you poke around the internet, you'll find seers linking supermoons to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, monster storms and even wildfires, and noting that various high-profile natural disasters occurred right around the time that a supermoon loomed over the nighttime landscape.

The makers of those claims often stretch the concept of proximity to extremes — 2005's Hurricane Katrina, for example, has been linked in some accounts to supermoon effects, even though it actually occurred more than seven months after a supermoon [source: Portman].

And even when a supermoon does occur close in time to a natural disaster — such as the 9.1 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan eight days before a supermoon in March 2011 -- that isn't necessarily evidence of a connection between two events.

As James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, explained in a 2011 interview, the earth stores a tremendous amount of energy in its crust, and the relatively small amount of force exerted by lunar gravity isn't enough to alter the processes that cause earthquakes [source: NASA].

Supermoons don't have that much more effect on the earth than the moon usually does. The only exception is that when the moon is closer to the earth than usual, it does cause tides to be slightly higher — but only by slightly more than an inch, at most [sources: Sessions, ScienceDaily].

The belief that supermoons can affect human behavior is based upon the assumption that a supermoon, because it looks bigger than normal, exerts some sort of unusual force upon Earth's inhabitants. But there's no evidence that is so.

When it comes to gravity, for example, the effect of a full moon at perigee is only about three one-thousandths of an ounce (110 milligrams) greater than the moon exerts at apogee — 1/9th of the mass of a paper clip. That effect actually is smaller than you'll encounter when you're near a mountain or even a large building [source: Sessions].

How to Photograph a Supermoon

How to Photograph a Supermoon
Juxtaposing a supermoon with a well-known landmark (like the ancient Acropolis hill in Athens, Greece) makes your supermoon photograph more interesting. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Even though supermoons don't really affect the earth much and aren't considered that important by scientists, they're still an interesting phenomenon to photograph. Here are some tips from photographers on shooting a supermoon.

  • Use the right equipment and settings. Ideally, you want to use a digital single-lens reflex camera with an attachable 70 to 300 millimeter telephoto lens, so you can get a more detailed image. Use the daylight white balance setting on your DSLR, since what you're trying to capture is reflected sunlight.
  • Turn off your flash, even if you're shooting with your smartphone. It'll illuminate your immediate surroundings, and make the moon look insignificant by comparison. Consider downloading one of the many apps that allow you to adjust a smartphone camera to take the best pictures in the darkness [sources: Gee, Orwig, Cuthbertson].
  • Stabilize your camera. It's a good idea to use a tripod, or else to brace your camera against some fixed object such as a lamppost or windowsill, to reduce shaking that could wipe out details and make the image blurry. That also will allow you to use a longer exposure time and take in more light, a benefit when shooting at night [source: Hoffman].
  • Don't just photograph the supermoon itself. NASA senior photographer Bill Ingalls recommends juxtaposing the moon with some land-based object, such as a recognizable local building, in order to give a reference point that will drive home the moon's size [source: Stone].

Author's Note: How Supermoons Work

This assignment was interesting to me because I've always found it enchanting to go for walks at night, under the illumination of a full moon.

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More Great Links


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