You may read stories in the media about Sunday evening’s or Monday morning’s full moon being a “supermoon.” And it is true that – by a slight amount – the full moon just before Monday’s sunrise will be the closest, brightest, and largest-looking full moon since 1948.
But the average person won’t notice much difference between this “supermoon” and an ordinary full moon. Clouds, smog, and human lights turn out to have a much greater effect on how bright a full moon looks to us. Still, if you look carefully under dark skies, you might convince yourself that the full Moon Sunday night and Monday before dawn looks a bit bigger and brighter than usual.
“Supermoon” is not an astronomical term. It was suggested by an astrologer and suddenly became popular in the media (who always favor superlatives) in 2011. We astronomers have been stuck with it ever since.
Why are some full moons bigger and brighter than others? It’s because the Moon’s orbit around us is not a perfect circle, but on oval shape called an ellipse. That means sometimes the Moon is a bit closer to us and sometimes it’s a bit further away. If a full moon happens just when the Moon is closer, we get a bigger and brighter looking full moon. The more precisely the closest moon and the full moon coincide, the better the super effect. Nov. 14th, the moon is full at 5:52 am Pacific time, while the moon is closest at 3:23 am. That’s a pretty close coincidence.
Does the “supermoon” have any significant effect on planet Earth. You may read predictions that there will be much greater tides or even earthquakes Monday morning. Don’t believe it! We have slightly stronger tides every time the Sun, Earth and Moon are lined up (which they are at every full moon). But the only time the supermoon will show itself in a significantly stronger effect on the shore is if we happen to be in the middle of a huge storm. And the Sun and Moon have no effect on earthquakes, which happen deep inside the Earth.
So if you happen to glance at the full Moon Sunday evening or Monday morning, enjoy the knowledge that the Moon is a bit closer to you. You may even howl at the Moon if the candidate of your choice didn’t get chosen in our recent elections. But don’t add the “supermoon” to your list of things worth worrying about.
(Photo of the Lick Observatory with the Moon behind it by Rick Baldridge of the Peninsula Astronomical Society. This was taken with a special lens to enlarge both the observatory and the Moon.)