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

by Tammy Plotner on March 10, 2011

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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!

About 

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.

Trippy March 10, 2011 at 9:47 AM

Hii Tammy.
Saddly, Nolle isn’t the only one.
On Feb 22nd, Christchurch (NZ) was hit by a M6.3 aftershock of a M7.1 earthquake that occured in September last year. The aftershock was at a depth of 5km, and 10km from the city center. PGA’s of up to 2.2g were measured in the city, i’m sure you can imagine what that did.

I mention this because there’s an individual by the name of Ken Ring here in New Zealand, who claims to not only be able to predict earhquakes using lunar phase and distance, in combination with solar activity and planetary alignments, but also claims to be able to predict the weather using the same information. He claims to not only have predicted the Aftershock (he apparently had something like a 75% chance of getting it right), but is making some pretty dire predictions centered around March 19 perigee, which, needless to say, is panicing some people.

Olaf March 10, 2011 at 10:19 AM

Yes when the Moon is closer it has a slight higher gravitational pull. But that slight higher additional pull is distributed over the complete Earth equally cancelling each others force out at both the front and the back over the complete Earth.
Yes the sea gets a slight higher height because it can actually move freely over the surface.
Any Earth quake that starts at that moment could probably also be caused by a moving truck or train or someone that farted.

Claiming an aftershock as proof for a correct prediction is worthless. It is as silly as trying to claim that there will be snow when we reach the month of December. Once you had an Earthquake, you will get many aftershocks and that is a give fact. No prediction required. It is a bit like predicting thunder after you saw the lighting strike.

Trippy March 10, 2011 at 10:24 AM

Suffice to say, I’m not one of Mr Ring’s supporters, expecially given that the GNS predictions were generally more accurate (they predicted a M6+ aftershock back in September, and even in Feb were still saying there was a 1 in 20 chance of it happening.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 10, 2011 at 2:16 PM

Mr Ring is crazier than the PC/EU lot! His “predictions” fail because he has no real science or theory to back it up. Frankly you’d be better of with astrological prediction or tarot cards than he… As for wantonly exploiting those who suffered so badly in Christchurch and making them even more nervous, well frankly this really disgust me. Outta 10, I’d give him ?1.
When itdoesn’t happen, make sure fire all barrels directly at him to exposure his misguided and unsubstantiated theories. :(

Trippy March 10, 2011 at 2:36 PM

I mentioned that he had a 75% chance of getting it right – there’s a sciblog post that does a statistical analysis of his predictions and the conclusion that it came to is that even under the scenario of no causal connection – IE his theory being wrong, he still has a 75% chance of making a correct prediction, or, to put it another way, his predictions should be expected to have a 75% false positive rate.

I have recently come to realize that the thing that irritates me most about Mr Ring’s predictions is that there is no way of refuting them, because he simply hand waves away wrong predictions with statements like “Well obviously I’m not going to get it right all the time – such is the nature of science” and “These aren’t predictions, they’re only opinions”.

Silver Thread March 10, 2011 at 8:31 PM

We can just as easily hand wave away any “predictions” he gets right and point out that even a blind hog sometimes finds an acorn.

Manu March 10, 2011 at 11:10 AM

This article makes me very uneasy.
I can’t decide if you’re tongue-in-cheek deriding a successful professional fearmonger, or if you actually think Nolle’s ‘work’ worthy of any ‘respect’.

It is very cynical of him (and you? hopefully not) to list disasters occurrences without estimating the probabilities of chance simultaneity (Bayesian if you please. Where’s Torbjorn when you need him?). I also note he takes good care to link to his own book, but no independent source for evidence, not even mentioning peer-reviewed.

Oh: “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”.
You’ve got to be kidding me. _YOU_’re writing this, not Nolle???

Danny wuvs Kittens March 10, 2011 at 11:38 AM

Manu, my guess is he’s trying to not alienate a probably significant portion of his reader base. I’m all for woo-killing; I’m a skeptic and a philosophical naturalist myself, but I’d rather people be curious about science than not believing in any woo. Its like getting a stubborn child to eat their vegetables; sometimes you’ve got to slip it in along with other stuff that are universally tasty.

Oldpond March 10, 2011 at 12:24 PM

@ Danny wuvs Kittens

Reminds me of the first chapter in Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World”, people have a natural curiosity (Or hunger in your analogy) and due to certain reasons both science and woo have been allowed to be stocked in the pantry.

Oldpond March 10, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Olaf + 1

If we had an astrophysicist, who specialized in Earth-Moon interactions, giving the exact same “Doom and gloom” scenario we would be quite reasonable in giving him only a modicum of traction until he had gained the consensus of his scientific peers.

Instead, we have Mr. Nolle, an astrologer and apparent layman in the realm of astrophysics, giving impetus to this Universe today article and garnering two caveats of respect and zero critiques of the utter baloney that he peddles. Baloney that is the direct antithesis to real science.

Olaf March 11, 2011 at 1:02 PM

It is actually interesting that the big Earth Quake in Japan happened when the moon was at its furthest distance. I just checked.

ajiths42 March 10, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Tammy,
there is a very thin line to the basics of ASTROLOGY and ASTRONOMY – an astrology expert can sit at home and find out, where as an astronomy expert has to tire hard – following is my comments for the Supermoon carried along:
ok, it is not just Moon, (lets talk at the astronomical level), every single object in this universe has an energy effect on each other – the energies are of different types and degrees and interact with each other giving out various results – here in the case of Super Moon (thanks for the term to get the idea), again we cannot tell for sure whether it will cause any effect and it if caues, what are they – u need detailed analysis and modern day man is not competent enought to tell everything – these energy calculations can be determined another way , that is called astrology, again in modern world we do not have competent people in this area, so thats astronomy and astrology for you (basically both are same – former man made and latter nature or God given) and it there has to be a disaster it will happen unless some counteracting positive energy is released to block the energies of supermoon – well not sure how many are following !

Olaf March 11, 2011 at 1:04 PM

There is no thin line between astrology and astronomy.
Astrology deals with fiction, while astronomy deals with facts.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 10, 2011 at 2:24 PM

One word says it all;
Superpseudoscience!

Question March 10, 2011 at 2:46 PM

i lost a girlfriend once for mocking her belief in astrology. since then i mostly keep quiet about it.

Ted Judah March 10, 2011 at 9:18 PM

I did too but I’m sure I’m better off without her. She happens to be a scientologist now.

Astrofiend March 10, 2011 at 3:23 PM

“I mean no disrespect for those who enjoy the study of astrology.”

You’re too kind Tammy! I do, and I’m saying that with the deepest disrespect I can muster.

alcyone March 10, 2011 at 5:29 PM

Supermoon: another junk science non-event for Phil Plait to debunk on his blog, if he hasn’t done so already.

coreburn March 10, 2011 at 11:34 PM

You might want to turn on the news… a mag 8.8 earthquake near Japan, Tsunami washing ashore NOW. Turn on CNN! Moon or not the shit just hit the fan for many people.

Paul Eaton-Jones March 11, 2011 at 1:34 AM

The tone of the article almost smacks as apologist to me. What’s the betting the lunatics [no pun intended] jump up and point out the earhquake this morning off Japan as evidence?

Feenixx March 11, 2011 at 1:53 AM

it is more than a week early – that, to me, is evidence of some sort for something that astrologers won’t agree with.

Silver Thread March 11, 2011 at 4:56 AM
Olaf March 11, 2011 at 1:20 PM

Silver Thread, you de realize that the Moon is at furthest distance from Earth when this happens right?
Do you think that gravity works like homoeopathy? The further away the more influence?

Silver Thread March 11, 2011 at 5:05 AM

I am not for or against the idea, a legitimate scientists wouldn’t poo poo the idea simply because of it’s point of origin. Ask Galileo how widely derided his science was in his era. The fact is, from a very broad standpoint, it seems sensible that torsion of the Earth’s surface owing to increased gravitational effects could have some impact on plate tectonics. Hell we *know* that to be true. Dismissing the idea as hokum because it wasn’t something you were taught in school seems close minded and as unscientific as a person can get.

Olaf March 11, 2011 at 1:23 PM

Silver Thread, give us some numbers of the forces that shows the torsion you claim that can cause an Earth Quake. So we can check your data.

Silver Thread March 11, 2011 at 6:50 PM

No.

Uncle Fred March 12, 2011 at 8:02 PM

Then don’t post personal theories. Read the forum rule guidelines. Thanks.

Trippy March 11, 2011 at 1:43 PM

Gallileo was derided by the religous community.

Silver Thread March 11, 2011 at 7:07 PM

At that time, the Religious Community also represented the prevailing scientific organization and was the overwhelming voice of contemporary thought, ergo my correlation.

As I mentioned before I am not for or against the concept. I am willing to accept that there is some possibility that the idea has merit, what I would like to see is more empiricism. Openly deriding the concept seems infantile and speaks to the close mindedness of the individuals perpetrating it.

If you don’t agree with it, an ad hominem attack isn’t an exceptional way to disprove the hypothesis and given the myriad of factors affecting the earth in general and the relative dearth of understanding regarding the prediction of earthquakes, I won’t arbitrarily dismiss the possibility that lunar gravitation, which we know affects tides on the planet, may also play a role in affecting the liquid mantle of the planet as well, but that’s not a point *I* am interested in trying to prove or disprove.

Trippy March 12, 2011 at 3:02 AM

“At that time, the Religious Community also represented the prevailing scientific organization and was the overwhelming voice of contemporary thought, ergo my correlation.”
Gallileos troubles were entirely self inflicted, the conflict between him and the church was more a matter of ego than anything else. Initially the only thing that the church cared about was the fact that it gave the right answers. That’s how the whole thing came about in the first place – the church, in effect, commissioned Copernicus to find a more accurate model for calculating the dates of religous festivals. The difference between Gallileo and Copernicus was Copernicus said “We can treat it this way, and get better answers”, Gallileo said “It IS this way. Period.” Gallileo made his bed when he named the character arguing the churches view point “Simplico”.

Nice attempt at justifying the ‘Gallileo Fallacy’. Sometimes, Ideas are just wrong.

As for the rest of this:
“As I mentioned before I am not for or against the concept. I am willing to accept that there is some possibility that the idea has merit, what I would like to see is more empiricism. Openly deriding the concept seems infantile and speaks to the close mindedness of the individuals perpetrating it.”
That’s nice, I don’t care. I have a degree that includes Statistics, and have done my own analysis, using 30+ years worth of Earthquake data (M5+) 15000 points of data, and do you know what’s in it pattern wise?

Bupkiss.

This science was investigated over 100 years ago, and little has changed.

“If you don’t agree with it, an ad hominem attack isn’t an exceptional way to disprove the hypothesis and given the myriad of factors affecting the earth in general and the relative dearth of understanding regarding the prediction of earthquakes, I won’t arbitrarily dismiss the possibility that lunar gravitation, which we know affects tides on the planet, may also play a role in affecting the liquid mantle of the planet as well, but that’s not a point *I* am interested in trying to prove or disprove.”
What does any of this have to do with anything I’ve said?
Oh, that’s right. Nothing.

spacemonkey1 March 11, 2011 at 6:34 AM

Hey pal, your once-in-an-18 year “lunar perigee” event just coincided with an 8.9 quake; the largest to hit Japan in 140 years. Also within hours of a 3.6 quake in Hawaii; a seismic event on a completely different fault line. And I quote: “For most of us, the geocosmic risk raised by SuperMoon alignments will pass with little notice in our immediate vicinity.” (that is, unless your immediate vicinity happens to be Sendai, Japan under 30 feet of tsunami water). Good call Mr. “No disrespect, Super Moon Guy”.

Trippy March 12, 2011 at 3:05 AM

Only, Umm, not.
Perigee on March 19
Earthquake on March 11.

And as for the Chch earthquake, not only did it occur in the last day of his window, it occured in the last 10 minutes of his window.

Incidentally – you do know that Tammy is a girls name, right?

Crewvy March 11, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Will my tinfoil hat protect me from the effects of …..the EXTREME SUPERMOON…or will I have to make one out of titanium?

alcyone March 11, 2011 at 10:16 AM

Supermooners: I just looked it up: at the time of this earthquake in Japan, the moon was a waxing crescent, only 33% illuminated, @ an altitude of 65″ (not even overhead) and it was 390,654 kms from the earth. That is over 34,000 kms further away than it will be on Mar 19!
No Supermoon (even by Knolle’s definition), no lunar perigee, not even a funny coincidence.
The precise timing of lunar perigees and tides have been known for a long time now. If there was a causal relationship to earthquakes, I really think we would know that by now.

Dav_Daddy March 11, 2011 at 11:44 AM

It would be very interesting to see if we can find any correlation between this supermoon event and increased geologic/seismic activity.

Looking at this like an engineer (which I’m not) it seems to make sense that you would have a failure while stress loading.

Olaf March 11, 2011 at 1:27 PM

Don’t forget that gravity goes through a planet. The back side gets equally exposed to the same forces as the front side cancelling out any force vectors.
There is a tiny increase of force difference but the moon is too far to have a significant difference. If the moon would be a close orbiting black hole then it would be a complete different story.

nightowl_13 March 12, 2011 at 10:59 PM

As a non-profit personal astrologer of over 20years, I’d like to defend the science, as not all hocus-pocus, and in ancient times, the skill of astronomy and astrology was in one class that complimented each other, and not as its became nowdays, in opposition of each other. So I commend the astronomer for at least giving some consideration to some credibility of astrologers. There is naturally, charlatans out there.

I have known people, who get 900 numbers, and know nothing whatsoever, about Astrology or have any psychic abilities, and will just use the psychology of humans like to talk and hear what they want to hear. That pays off. Believe me, when you make a prediction they don’t like, regardless how accurate you are, they’ll shut you out.

I have only used the skill for myself, and haven’t tried to earn a living off it, as I’m too honest.
Again, often the truth is not what people want to hear, thus, it doesn’t sell.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 13, 2011 at 12:02 AM

Yeah, untenable astrological radiations being from the planets is great sign of science and not hocus-pocus. Credibility? Sorry, you haven’t got any no matter what you say. Dream on buddy!

Paul Eaton-Jones March 14, 2011 at 6:19 AM

How can you defend it as a science when it’s nothing of the sort? What a joke. IF you can present proof then we will apologise but we all know that won’t happen as there is no proof. Bother someone else with your Stone Age ideas.

vishbill March 13, 2011 at 9:02 PM
Jon Hanford March 14, 2011 at 3:00 AM

@vishbill

From your source:

“….observed the occurrence of earthquakes to be more during the night than during the day.”

Huh.

“The drop in earthquake counts during the day, reduces for latitudes away from the equators and larger effect is seen for smaller earthquakes, which proportionally reduces for earthquakes with higher magnitude up to 5.0″

Among the many problems I have with the article you’ve linked, this supposed correlation between earthquakes and ‘daylight’ seems glaringly wrong. The length of a day at one location varies over a year and is dependent on latitude.

How could these statements be true? It makes no logical sense. (Sorry, after reading the article I see little to make me want to hunt down the paper for details)

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