Supermoons and Earthquakes: Is There a Connection?

Updated on January 23, 2018
harrynielsen profile image

Science has always fascinated me. This includes not only the ecological sciences, which I studied in school, but other endeavors, as well.

Supermoon in Our Nation's Capital

A June (2013) Supermoon rises behind the Washington Monument.
A June (2013) Supermoon rises behind the Washington Monument. | Source

What Is a supermoon?

A "supermoon" is a recent popular expression used to describe a full moon or a new moon that is orbiting closer to the earth than normal. The word was coined by astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979. Supermoons occur because the moon revolves around the earth in a elliptical orbit, instead of a circular one. Within this elliptical path there is a point when the moon is closest to the earth and a point when the moon is farthest away from the earth. These points are respectively referred to as a perigee and apogee.

Over the course of time the distance from earth to the moon will range between 222,000 and 252,000 miles. During the peak of the last supermoon, which occurred recently on November 14th 2016, the distance between earth and moon has been estimated to have been 221,526 miles. During a "supermoon" the distance from earth to moon will range close to the 221,000 figure that occurred on November 14th.

Just A Perigee Full Moon

In astronomical terms, a Supermoon can occur when a full or new moon occurs at or near the perigee of the moon's orbit. In either case, the astronomer will usually describe the event as a new moon perigee or a full moon perigee. It is important to note that the timing of the perigee and stage of the moon usually is a within a few hours. Supermoons occur all the time and do vary in the distance from earth. With a full moon perigee, the moon may appear to be as much as 14 per cent larger, while brightness can increase by as much as 30%, depending on atmospheric conditions, of course.

Just to place things in perspective, the November 2016 Supermoon was the largest since January 1948 and will not be surpassed in size until November 2034. Between November 2016 and November 2034, there will be numerous Supermoons, all of which, will be smaller in size than the one that just occurred in November 2016. In fact, another Supermoon is due occur to occur the very next time the moon circles around the earth. The date for this celestial event is December 18, 2016.

Syzygy

An astronomical syzygy occurs when the sun, moon and earth align in a straight line.
An astronomical syzygy occurs when the sun, moon and earth align in a straight line. | Source

What on earth is a syzygy?

Astronomers use the word syzygy to describe the alignment of three celestial bodies. For someone interested in the science surrounding a supermoon, the lineal alignment of the sun earth and moon, is called a perigee-syzygy.

Use of this word is not limited to astronomical scientists, for the word also has meaning for poets and philosophers.

The viewing size of a Supermoon and a lesser moon is visually compared.
The viewing size of a Supermoon and a lesser moon is visually compared. | Source

The Moon Actually Appears Larger

A super moon rising behind a temple in the nation of India
A super moon rising behind a temple in the nation of India | Source

Moon Optics or Moon Illusion

One optical effect that moon observers should be aware occurs when the moon breaks free from the horizon. At this point in time the moon will appear much larger than when it is overhead the viewer. The moon does not change size or vary its celestial course during this short time period. In fact, there is no scientific reason for why the moon appears to be larger. It is all in your head, literally.

The differences in perception boils down how to how the human eye sees things, especially multiple objects located at varying distances, and then how our mind processes this information. This phenomena is referred to as "moon illusion" and may also occur during a Supermoon. Nonetheless, through the use of comparatives photographs, it has been proven that the moon occupies more space in the sky.


Supermoon with Jetliner

A jetliner is silhouetted against a Supermoon in Austin, Texas on November 14 in 2016, photo by Jay Godwin
A jetliner is silhouetted against a Supermoon in Austin, Texas on November 14 in 2016, photo by Jay Godwin | Source

The Research

Even before the recent supermoon of November 2016, which occurred just after a major 7.8 earthquake in New Zealand, researchers were already looking for a possible link between the unusual celestial events and earthquakes. The efforts of these researchers rested not so much of the moon's effect on earthquakes, but rather they concentrated on how the moon might affect a tide and in return how an accelerated tide might put some added stress on certain coastal fault lines that are already under high geophysical stress.

Recent research, suggests that in some situations, fault lines could be pushed over the edge by unusually strong lunar tides that are associated with a Supermoon. It is important to note that in no way does imply that an earthquake can be predicted, but only there is some relationship.

Supermoon Explained

Way Out There

NASA picture/illustration of a meteor shower near another galaxy
NASA picture/illustration of a meteor shower near another galaxy

Some Out of the Ordinary Theories

Many unusual human activities have been associated with a full moon, including mental madness, high crime rates, onset of a woman's period and fertility. Scientific research has yet to prove a positive relation between a full moon and any of these conditions. However, a full moon does effect the ocean tides and also some research indicates that the natural event can effect a person's sleeping patterns.

Then there are those who have made dire predictions that a Supermoon can bring widespread destruction and calamities to our planet. Fortunately, none one of these prophecies has come to pass.


Is the Earth's Rotation Slowing Down?

The Strange Science of Earthquake Prediction

The month of January 2018, so far has seen one Supermoon and a number of significant, but not catastrophic earthquakes. With another Supermoon due at the end of the month, it is possible that some of this increased seismic activity may be related to the unusual astronomic activity. On the other hand the two events may be completely unrelated.

A recent article at the UK Daily Express suggests that 2018 may have an unusually high number of major earthquakes for entirely different reasons. According to this article, two American researchers have found an unusual high number of major earthquakes in years when the earth's rotation has slowed. down. Then they go on to say that they expect 2018 will be a year when the earth slows down its speed of rotation ever so slightly.

Hopefully, at the end of 2018, we will see that this prediction did not materialize, but still just even a slight plausibility of this scenario underscores how difficult it is to predict earthquakes and other earth-related phenomena.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Harry Nielsen

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