Supermoon 2012: Heralding disaster or the end of the world?

Norman Byrd's picture

The biggest, brightest full moon of 2012 will occur this weekend. In fact, it is a supermoon. After last year's blood red supermoon that followed the horrific Japanese earthquake and tsunami, some might again worry that the next passage heralds something cataclysmic.

Another supermoon is upon us. On May 5, at 11:35 p.m. EST, Earth's largest satellite will reach its closest point in its orbit around its host, according to Space.com. It will be full, bigger and brighter than any other full moon in the coming year. And contrary to some beliefs, the nearness of the massive object will not be cause for natural disasters, earthquakes, or other related (or unrelated) occurrences. It will simply be a great time to do a little moon-watching.

There is something distinctly unsettling about the moon being so uncharacteristically large in the sky. And the knowledge that the moon is a loose object moving through space alongside the Earth does not set minds at ease. So it shouldn't be too difficult to believe that many millions of people could unwittingly be convinced into fearing the Moon when it is in perigee (its astronomical closest point relative to Earth). What if the Moon somehow slipped its cosmological moorings and came too close? What if it crashed into the Earth? What if its relatively close distance caused gravitational problems, tectonic uplifts, tsunamis, and other anomalies? Seeing it loom so large in the sky instead of keeping its more familiar distance can send a few searching for answers among the lunatic fringe.

A case in point: The supermoon of 2011. Admittedly, it was a bit daunting, hanging so large in the sky. In fact, last year's perigee moon was an extreme supermoon, where the moon gets as close to Earth as is possible in its elliptical transit around the planet. That supermoon was full and it was red, which made it even more ominous (especially for those who lean toward omens and other superstitious prompts), causing some to worry that it was auguring the end of the world.

That the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami occurred within a week of the supermoon prompted many to speculate that the incoming supermoon was at least partially at cause. Much of that sort of thinking was generated by the work of astrologer Richard Nolle, who, according to ABC News, posited in 1979 that various natural disasters occurred more often within a period of time three days prior to or after the waning of a perigee moon. This would later be re-calibrated to include a couple weeks' time surrounding the closest passage of the moon and would see the inclusion of the 2004 Christmas tsunami as part of the supermoon's destructive nature.

However, the astronomers (note the consonant "n" as opposed to an "l") and scientists refute the entire theory that natural disasters and strange occurrences are the result of supermoons. Although gravitational pull does increase due to the Moon's nearness, it is negligible compared to its pull at any other time. Seismic and volcanic activity only increase in the neighborhood of one percent. Scientists noted that the Tohoku earthquake was a result of Earth's geological processes, not because of the interaction between the Earth and Moon.

"A lot of studies have been done on this kind of thing by USGS scientists and others," John Bellini, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey, told Life's Little Mysteries last year when concerns arose about the supermoon. "They haven't found anything significant at all."

Perigee moons are considered supermoons when the satellite moves within 90 percent of its closest passage to the Earth, according to AccuWeather blogger Mark Paquette. Extreme supermoons, such as last year's, occur at or close to the nearest the Moon ever gets to the Earth.

The May 5 supermoon will come within 221,802 miles of Earth. It will be approximately 16 percent brighter than the regular full moon.

The next supermoon will occur again in June, but the next extreme supermoon will not happen again until November 2016.

(photo credit: Adrian Scottow, Creative Commons)

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