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March 19, 2011… “SuperMoon” or “SuperHype”?

Credit: JPL/NASA

I mean no disrespect for those who enjoy the study of astrology. Some of the greatest astronomers of the past were also astrologers. To practice either line requires a deep understanding of our solar system, its movements and the relationship to the celestial sphere. The only thing I have difficulty swallowing is how a perfectly normal function could wreak havoc on planet Earth. Does an astrological prediction of an upcoming “Extreme SuperMoon” spell impending disaster – or is it just one more attempt to excite our natural tendencies to love a good gloom and doom story? That’s what I set about to find out…

On March 19, 2011 the Moon will pass by Earth at a distance of 356,577 kilometers (221,567 miles) – the closest pass in 18 years . In my world, this is known as lunar perigee and a normal lunar perigee averaging a distance of 364,397 kilometers (226,425 miles) happens… well… like clockwork once every orbital period. According to astrologer, Richard Nolle, this month’s closer than average pass is called an Extreme SuperMoon. “SuperMoon is a word I coined in a 1979 article for Dell Publishing Company’s HOROSCOPE magazine, describing what is technically termed a perigee-syzygy; i.e. a new or full Moon (syzygy) which occurs with the Moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth (perigee) in a given orbit.” says Richard. “In short, Earth, Moon and Sun are all in a line, with Moon in its nearest approach to Earth.”

Opinions aside, it is a scientific fact when the Moon is at perigee there is more gravitational pull, creating higher tides or significant variations in high and low tides. In addition, the tidal effect of the Sun’s gravitational field increases the Moon’s orbital eccentricity when the orbit’s major axis is aligned with the Sun-Earth vector. Or, more specifically, when the Moon is full or new. We are all aware of Earth’s tidal bulges. The average tidal bulge closely follows the Moon in its orbit, and the Earth rotates under this tidal bulge in just over a day. However, the rotation drags the position of the tidal bulge ahead of the position directly under the Moon. It produces torque… But is it above average torque when the Moon is closer? It you ask a geologist, they’ll tell you no. If you ask an astronomer, they’ll tell you that just about any cataclysmic Earth event can be related to stars. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you that you should draw your own opinion. Even the American Meteorlogical Society states: “Tidal forces contribute to ocean currents, which moderate global temperatures by transporting heat energy toward the poles. It has been suggested that in addition to other factors, harmonic beat variations in tidal forcing may contribute to climate changes.”

Credit: Richard Nolle

“SuperMoons are noteworthy for their close association with extreme tidal forces working in what astrologers of old used to call the sublunary world: the atmosphere, crust and oceans of our home planet – including ourselves, of course. From extreme coastal tides to severe storms to powerful earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the entire natural world surges and spasms under the sway of the SuperMoon alignment – within three days either way of the exact syzygy, as a general rule.” says Nolle. “Obviously it won’t be the case that all hell will break loose all over the world within a few days either side of the SuperMoons. For most of us, the geocosmic risk raised by SuperMoon alignments will pass with little notice in our immediate vicinity. This is a rather roomy planet, after all. But the fact remains that a SuperMoon is planetary in scale, being a special alignment of Earth, Sun and Moon. It’s likewise planetary in scope, in the sense that there’s no place on Earth not subject to the tidal force of the perigee-syzygy.”

If you take the time to really look at Nolle’s work, you’ll find that he does not believe earthquakes and volcanic eruptions go wandering all over the planet. They happen in predictable locations, like the infamous “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific plate. “If you’re in (or plan to be in) a place that’s subject to seismic upheaval during a SuperMoon stress window, it’s not hard to figure out that being prepared to the extent that you can is not a bad idea. Likewise, people on the coast should be prepared for extreme tidal surges. Severe storms on the other hand can strike just about anywhere, so it behooves us all to be ready for rough weather when a SuperMoon alignment forms.”

Does this mean I’m about to buy into astrology? Not hardly. But what I do believe in is respect for other’s work and opinions. It’s very obvious that Nolle has done his astronomy homework – as well as paying close attention to current political and social situations. “That said, there’s no harm in making sensible preparations for this year’s SuperMoons.” quips Richard. “The worst that can happen, if the worst doesn’t happen, is that you end up with a stock of fresh batteries and candles, some extra bottled water and canned goods, maybe a full tank of gas and an evacuation bag packed just in case. (The US Department of Homeland Security has a detailed evacuation kit inventory that, to quote them, “could mean the difference between life and death”.) And maybe you’ll think twice about being in transit and vulnerable to the weather hazards and delays that are so common during SuperMoon alignments. These are the kind of sensible precautions that can make a big difference if the worst does come to pass.”

What do I believe will happen during an Extreme SuperMoon? I think if we aren’t having two snowstorms followed by a nocturnal tornado and then chased down by a week of flooding in Ohio, that the March Worm Moon will appear to be about 30% brighter and about 15% larger than a “normal” full Moon. If I were an astrophotographer, I’d be getting out my camera (and hip waders) to do a few comparison shots with upcoming full Moons. But considering all things are equal?

I think I’ll just stay home.

Be sure to visit Richard Nolle’s page SuperMoon for more insight!


Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • vishbill March 13, 2011, 9:07 PM
  • tokyo79 March 14, 2011, 12:20 AM

    I am in Japan now, and after reading about the supermoon l feel heartbroken that what was predicted in a sense occurred.

    • Tammy Plotner March 15, 2011, 4:35 PM

      i am deeply sorry, too. believe me, it was just a coincidence that this article appeared just ahead of the disaster.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell March 14, 2011, 4:23 AM

    Tidal forces are a change in the gravity field across a body. In the case of the earth this is

    Delta F = 2GMmd/r^3,

    for d the diameter of the Earth and r the orbital radius to the moon. The dependency on the radius is cubic, which means any small variation in r is pretty small. If I have r change to r + &r (r >> &r) then the cubic reciprocal of this is about 1/r^3 + 3&r/r^4. Here the &r is the radial difference between perigee and the average orbital radius. Some thinking should indicate the change is pretty small. The decreased distance between the Earth and the moon at perigee is really not that great.

    Also this 18 year cycle means there is a similar cycle where the moon is at perigee at the new moon, with a 9 years “phase difference.” From a gravitational perspective it makes no difference whether the moon is new or full. The full moon might have a bit of a visual or psychological impact, but this has nothing to do with physics. No matter how you look at it, the Newtonian orbital parameters mean the moon has this perigee, and whether it happens at new moon, full moon, at a quarter or any other period of the lunar phase has absolutely no bearing on the gravitational physics involved.


  • Jon Hanford March 14, 2011, 8:33 AM

    I’ve read that concerned skeptics, engineers, and geologists will meet in Christchurch this Sunday to mock Ken Ring’s prediction of a major tremor. From the report:

    “New Zealand Skeptics spokeswoman Vicki Hyde said many in Christchurch were taking Ring seriously and her organisation had organised a “non-event” lunch on the day to try to set their minds at ease.

    “At times like these, we think it’s irresponsible to allow anyone to exploit the understandable anxieties of Christchurch residents,” she said, accusing Ring of seeking “opportunistic publicity”.

    Hyde said prominent sceptics, including members of the scientific community who have attacked Ring’s theories, would attend the lunch in a historic stone building on a Christchurch hilltop.

    Environment Minister Nick Smith, who holds a PhD in geo-technical engineering, described the lunch as a public service event.

    “The last thing needed by thousands of traumatised people in Canterbury, including elderly and children, is junk science and made-up predictions of future major quakes,” he said.”

    Also noted:

    “In response to the attacks, Ring has said will make no public comment until after March 20.”

    Full article: http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-03-zealand-sceptics-defy-moonman-quake.html

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 14, 2011, 11:29 AM

      “In response to the attacks, Ring has said will make no public comment until after March 20.”

      Could this not be extended, to like, forever?

      Really. I’d suggest forget being nice to this blood-sucking creep — no better described as an anti-science terrorist. Anyone who is so seemingly unscrupulous needs to be taught a unforgettable lesson to even even thinking spreading such fear. Show him as the stinking fraud that he has been displaying for many years.
      People like he are no better than those disgusting opportunistic filthy looters stealing from the vulnerable during a crises.

      Thanks for bring this to our attention!

      (Please, can UT write a story so we can take apart his quite unsubstantiated pseudoscience.)

  • Tammy Plotner March 14, 2011, 10:28 AM

    thanks for commenting, night owl. it never ceases to amaze me how people can read an article (or comment, for that matter) and read more into it than what is there.

    it is most unfortunate (and tragic) that the japan disaster nearly coincided with the march 19th apogee. my sometimes slightly irrational thinking makes me wonder that if the moon were at its furthest point at the time, perhaps the slight lack of comforting gravitation pull had some effect? when i researched this article, i went through a slew of supermoon dates and found a huge correlation of storms and siesmic activity at both ends of the poles. coincidence? quite probably. but i cannot and will not discredit the idea the moon’s distance might have possibly played a role AND that mr. nolle’s work is centered around mathmatical orbital calculations and not mumbo jumbo.

    true astrology is not voodoo. it’s careful calcuations of orbital elements and even more careful observations (and comments) of social and politcal trends. do i believe in predictions based on these calculations? no. but i do believe in sliderules and scientific facts. show me a person who can calculate orbital elements and knows what an ephemeris is (as well as pronounce it) and i’ll show you respect.

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 14, 2011, 11:11 AM

      Oh dear, oh dear! “true astrology is not voodoo. it’s careful calcuations of orbital elements and even more careful observations (and comments) of social and politcal trends.”

      Did you really mean to actually say this? If you believe that is true, god help you. I mean, is this a science site or does it openly support pseudoscience?

      I produced ephemerides for years, but it had absolutely nothing to do with astrology or anything to do social and politcal trends.

      • Paul Eaton-Jones March 15, 2011, 1:38 AM

        Spot on HSBC, spot on.

        • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 15, 2011, 2:54 PM

          Thanks for the support here.
          Anyone who says “my sometimes slightly irrational thinking” is clearly no scientist. Anyone who could consider correlations must also assess the errors too. Astrology, for example is rejected because there is no correlation between actual events and randomness of those events.
          Believe me. If anyone found a way of predicting major earthquakes, governments and scientists would be issuing major warnings all the time. As they don’t do this, there must be a real good reason for it. I.e. There is no correlations to be able predict earthquakes to any certainty.

          (Other know this and exploit it for their advantage. I.e. Ken Ring in New Zealand.)

    • Lawrence B. Crowell March 15, 2011, 3:42 PM

      The Sendai quake did not happen at lunar apogee. It happened near first quarter, which put the moon at pi/2 in anomaly angle from the apogee at full phase. Gravitational physics is an unlikely source for the earthquake. Further the moon passes through apogee every month, more or less at the same distance. There is just a phase shift of between perigee and the phase of the moon that cycles every 18 years.

      Astrology is at best a good idea at trying to understand the celestial sphere, a good idea that is dead. There were similar ideas, such as phlogiston in alchemy and élan vital in biology, which have been sloughed off as well.


  • Tammy Plotner March 15, 2011, 1:24 PM

    sally crumb! do you really mean to say that galileo practiced pseudoscience? how about kepler? perhaps you didn’t mean ptolemy, cassini or gassendi, either…


    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 15, 2011, 2:07 PM

      Wow, I never thought I’d be lost for words… Who would have thought that some UT article presented here would support or even consider the application of pseudoscience was valid.

      Clearly you need to seriously think about what you have said here.

      Yes. Some of these individuals absolutely did practice pseudoscience, and some did it to make money. When they did, they were not doing the science of astronomy, but the pseudoscience of astrology. Correlations of planetary positions to social or political trends are nonexistent. It is not science. (Voodoo is in fact sorcery and possessed by a spirit, it had nothing to do with astrology.)

      By supporting astrology and Mr Nolle’s mumbo jumbo greatly diminishes many of your articles that are posted here. (He actually makes no claims at all with the correlation of the Saros, only just certain perigees. The gravitational influence by the Moon on the Earth is a twice daily occurrence, and differences between perigees are insignificant compared to the solid tides. As stated by others here, there are multiple causes — the most probable being the quite final random stress failure of the actual fault line.)

      Sorry. Your argument here is rather foolish and unsupportable.

  • Tammy Plotner March 15, 2011, 3:48 PM

    go on, burn them witches! giggle…. before you publically roast me, add just a bit of butter and garlic, will you? i’m best when medium-rare.


    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 15, 2011, 4:43 PM

      I can only comment on what you’ve written here. As you state in your reply… “but i cannot and will not discredit the idea the moon’s distance might have possibly played a role AND that mr. nolle’s work is centred around mathematical orbital calculations and not mumbo jumbo.”

      This is clearly wrong, as responders in this storyline have already said.

      According to [Nolle’s words]; “The April 18 full moon SuperMoon Mars-Saturn opposition (just a week after the Mars-Pluto waxing square) has some ominous antecedents, geopolitically as well as geophysically. A longitudinal swath touching Ottawa, New York, Washington, Cuba and Hispaniola and virtually all of western South America figures into this; as well as Indonesia, Indochina, China, Mongolia and Siberia — and that’s just the geopolitical end of the spectrum.” From http://www.astropro.com/forecast/predict/2011-all.html

      Are not “ominous antecedents” the hallmark of astrological prediction?

      So will will we now be expecting the announcing in some new UT article on April 15th or 16th a dire warning of an impeding some geophysical disaster?

      As Shakespeare says in Julius Caesar; “A soothsayer says, beware the Ides of March” (Or in this case this coming April.)

      Really. Supporting one’s arguments has nothing to do with burning witches, or methods of cooking, or voodoo. In the end, even Nancy Atkinson agrees as in her UT article title; “Just to be Clear: The Moon Did Not Cause the Earthquake in Japan.”

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 15, 2011, 5:16 PM

      Do you want to a martyr or a pyrrha here?

      Note: Quite relevantly to the story. In the Greek myths, didn’t Deucalion and Pyrrha survive a flood send down by Zeus to to deliberately punish human beings for their wickedness? If I recall my mythology correctly, they threw heavy rocks over and when they hit the ground turned into human beings so the world could be populated again. (It is believed this is the legend behind the 35 to 150 metre high tsunami that destroyed the Cretan or Minoan civilisation when the Mediterranean Thera volcano blew in 1616±14 BCE.

  • rikasariya March 18, 2011, 8:13 AM

    People who are too arrogant and think science is God, one day will be stunned and realized that science is relative, not eternal. Something that considered as nonsense today, fifty years ahead will be called science.
    I really appreciate this article. It gives me knowledge from different perspective. Thank you.

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 18, 2011, 11:49 AM

      Actually you’re wrong. Science cannot prove or disprove God, as it can only deduce from physical observation through proofs or theorems that either explain or predict future behaviours governing the universe.
      Even religion says the physical universe is not eternal either, because your faith says it will be finally destroyed by fire in a final apocalypse. From your own illogical logic here, you might as well say fish rides bicycles!

      I had a honest broad smile when I read your very positive appreciative statement regarding learning “knowledge from different perspective.” from this article, I sincerely hope you keep enquiring about science too. All true science is not all that evil or arrogant. (Just think of the good and useful science that goes into making high-rise and residential buildings in Japan, especially in Tokyo. We it not for material science and techniques in building construction, the loss of life in that country would had been much greater.) Good on you!

  • shzad1 March 18, 2011, 10:02 AM

    Even so, there is no clear evidence that any of these phenomena influenced the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Read the truth about biggest Full Moon after 18 Years Supermoon 19th March 2011 http://itwel.com/biggest-full-moon-after-18-years-supermoon-19th-march-2011.php

  • ad March 18, 2011, 11:52 PM

    I photographer the moon today and before from different parts of the world. See the compilation at http://arundevarajlife.blogspot.com/2011/03/moon-photo-blog-moon-as-seen-from.html

  • shzad1 March 19, 2011, 9:21 AM

    Even so, there is no clear evidence that any of these phenomena influenced the Japan earthquake & tsunami. Read the truth about biggest Full Moon after 18 Years Supermoon 19th March 2011 at http://itwel.com/biggest-full-moon-after-18-years-supermoon-19th-march-2011.php

  • Tammy S March 19, 2011, 11:22 AM

    Indeed, coincidence that this article was published right before the Japan earthquake/Tsunami. Regardless, within the past 5 years more often than not the big earthquakes have all happened during a supermoon, namely Haiti and Indonesia. At any rate, it is at least frightening that the earth has experienced 2 out of the 5 largest earhtquakes EVER recorded within 5 year. More info: http://www.whatwillhappenin2012now.com/what-will-happen-in-2012/supermoon-earthquake-connection-and2012/

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 19, 2011, 11:47 AM

      Yet again. There is no correlation. Data does not support this conclusion.
      So why persist with this? Where is the scientific proof, please.

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 19, 2011, 11:49 AM

      Dud sites are absolute no scientific proof!

      Let’s see. What is your prediction of the next quake, then?

      (You’ve already missed one!)

      • Olaf March 19, 2011, 6:19 PM

        Actually we have proof that astrology does not work…. Again.

  • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 19, 2011, 11:53 AM

    SuperCrap, if you ask me!

  • ad March 19, 2011, 7:57 PM

    Today evening supermoon indeed looked splendid!! with its size and yellow colour. I was lucky enough to get a bunch of photos of it today from Denton, Texas, USA. Find the pics of supermoon at http://arundevarajlife.blogspot.com/2011/03/supermoon-photo-from-denton-tx-usa.html

  • Koowie May 14, 2011, 4:09 PM

    I’m a sucker for astronomy but I could care less about astrology.

  • Eric Blair May 21, 2011, 11:17 PM

    The Japan earthquake was March 11; I’d say thats significantly inside the window on the approach. I couldn’t give a crap about astrology except I have to watch my back against the killer zombies who think their imaginary friends need more blood during any observed astronomical alignments.