Why Was September’s Lunar Eclipse So Dark?

First off, a huge thank you to everyone who made and sent their Danjon scale estimate of the totally-eclipsed Moon’s brightness to Dr. Richard Keen, University of Colorado atmospheric scientist. Your data were crucial to his study of how aerosols in Earth’s atmosphere and other factors influence the Moon’s appearance.

Grateful for your help, Keen received a total of 28 observations from 7 different countries.

Graphs created by Dr. Richard Keen plotting Danjon L values submitted by Universe Today readers and others that compare expected values (top curve) with observed values. The Moon was about half as bright during totality as expected with L=1.9. Credit: Dr. Richard A. Keen
Graph created by Dr. Richard Keen plotting Danjon L values submitted by Universe Today readers and others that compare predicted values (top curve) with observed values. The Moon was about half as bright during totality as expected with L=1.9. Credit: Dr. Richard A. Keen

Using the Danjon information and estimates of the Moon’s brightness using the reverse binocular method, Keen crunched the data and concluded that the Moon was about 0.6 L (Danjon) units darker than expected and 0.4 magnitude dimmer, a brightness reduction of 33%. This agrees well with my own observation and possibly yours, too. No wonder so many stars sparkled near the Moon that night.

Depending on how clear the atmosphere is, the Moon's color can vary dramatically from one eclipse to another. The numbers, called the Danjon Scale, will help you estimate the color of Sunday night's eclipse. Credit: Bob King
Lunar eclipse brightness is rated on the Danjon scale where “0” equals a dark gray totality and “4” a bright, coppery yellow. Credit: Bob King

I think it’s safe to say, most of us expected a normal or even bright totality. So why was it dark? Several factors were at play — one to do with the Moon’s location in Earth’s shadow, the other with a volcanic eruption and a third with long-term, manmade pollution.

During a perigee eclipse, the moon passes more deeply into Earth’s shadow compared to one that happens near apogee, when the moon is most distant from Earth. Moon distances not to scale and for illustration only. Credit: Bob King
During a perigean eclipse, the Moon passes more deeply into Earth’s shadow compared to one that happens near apogee, when the moon is most distant from Earth. Moon distances not to scale and for illustration only. Credit: Bob King

You’ll recall that the eclipse occurred during lunar perigee, when the Moon swings closest to Earth in its 27-day orbit. Being closer, it also tracked deeper into Earth’s umbra or inner shadow which narrows the farther back of the planet it goes. An apogean Moon (farthest from Earth) passes through a more tapered cone of darkness closer to the penumbra, where sunlight mixes with shadow. A Moon nearer Earth would find the umbral shadow roomier with the light-leaking penumbra further off in the distance.

Around midday on April 24, 2015, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired this natural-color image of the ash and gas plume from Calbuco volcano in southern Chile. Credit: NASA
On April 24, 2015, NASA’s Terra satellite acquired this photo of the ash and gas plume from Calbuco volcano in southern Chile. Credit: NASA

But there’s more. Working independently, Steve Albers of NOAA and Brazilian astronomer Helio Vital suggested another reason: aerosols in the atmosphere. “Earth’s stratosphere is no longer completely clean of volcanic ashes,” said Vital in an e-mail communication. “In fact, lingering aerosols (ash, dust, sulfuric acid droplets) from the explosion of Calbuco five months ago may be to blame for that excessive darkening.”

With the lunar horizon in the foreground, the Earth passes in front of the Sun on September 27, 2015 in this simulation, revealing the red ring of sunrises and sunsets along the limb of the planet responsible for illuminating the Moon during the eclipse. The clarity of the stratosphere at eclipse time can greatly affect lunar brightness during totality. The Earth and Sun are in Virgo for observers on the Moon with the bright star Beta Virginis at top. Click to see the video. Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio
With the lunar horizon in the foreground, the Earth passes in front of the Sun on September 27, 2015 in this simulation, revealing the red ring of sunrises and sunsets along the limb of the planet responsible for illuminating the Moon during the eclipse. The clarity of the stratosphere at eclipse time can greatly affect lunar brightness during totality. The Earth and Sun are in Virgo for observers on the Moon with the bright star Beta Virginis at top. Click to see the video. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

While much of the debris blasted into the stratosphere made for colorful sunsets in the southern hemisphere, some of that material has likely made its way to the northern hemisphere. Albers has noticed an increase in yellow and purple sunsets in his home town of Boulder in recent months, telltale signs of volcanic spew at play.

Forest fires that raged across the western states and Canadian provinces all spring and summer may also have contributed. Most of that smoke usually stays in the lower part of the atmosphere, but some may have found its way to the stratosphere, the very layer responsible for transmitting most of the sunlight that falls into Earth’s shadow and colors the moon.

Graph showing magnitude estimates of the Moon's brightness during totality using the reverse binocular method. The predicted magnitude was -1.7 (a little brighter than Sirius) vs. the observed -1.3. Credit: Dr. Richard A. Keen
Graph showing magnitude estimates of the Moon’s brightness during totality using the reverse binocular method. The predicted magnitude was -1.7 (a little brighter than Sirius) vs. the observed -1.3. Credit: Dr. Richard A. Keen

Sunlight has to pass through these light-absorbing minerals and chemicals on its way through the atmosphere and into Earth’s shadow. Less light means a darker moon during total eclipse. Coincidentally, much of the totally eclipsed Moon passed through the southern half of the umbra which “increased the effectiveness of the Calbuco aerosols (which are still more concentrated in the southern hemisphere than the northern) at dimming the light within the umbra,” writes Keen.

Oceanus Procellarum and Mare Imbrium are large, dark volcanic plains that contributed to the Moon's faintness and dark-hued totality. Credit: Bob King
Oceanus Procellarum and Mare Imbrium are large, dark volcanic plains that contributed to the Moon’s faintness and dark-hued totality. Credit: Bob King

It also so happened that the darkest part of the moon coincided with two vast, dark volcanic plains called Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms) and Mare Imbrium, artificially enhancing the overall gloom over the northern half of the Moon.

U.S. satellite-derived map of PM2.5 averaged over 2001-2006. Credit: Dalhousie University, Aaron van Donkelaar
U.S. satellite-derived map of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter which includes sulfates and soot) averaged over 2001-2006. Credit: Dalhousie University, Aaron van Donkelaar

Finally, the human hand may also have played a role in lunar color and brightness. The burning of coal and oil has caused a gradual increase in the amount of human-made sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. According to NASA, at current production levels, human-made sulfate aerosols are believed to outweigh the naturally produced sulfate aerosols. No surprise that the concentration of aerosols is highest in the northern hemisphere where most industrial activity is found.

Isn’t it fascinating that one blood-red Moon can tell us so much about the air we breathe? Thank you again for your participation!