Bad moon rising?

Tomorrow, the Earth's satellite will be as close to us as it has been in 20 years, and some say disaster will trail in its wake. Are they right? Jerome Taylor looks to the sky for answers

What's that in the sky? Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it's Super-Moon. Tomorrow evening, the world will be treated to a lunar phenomenon. Those who rarely look upwards will probably not notice anything particularly different about the night sky. But regular star-gazers will see that the Earth's ghostly neighbour appears slightly larger and brighter than it usually does.

That is because the moon is going to be closer to Earth tomorrow night than at any other time during the past 18 years. The more excitable of astrologers describe such an event as a "Super-Moon" and, because the moon is at the fullest part of its cycle, tomorrow's phenomenon has even been upgraded to an "extreme Super-Moon".

For amateur and professional astronomers, a lunar perigee, which describes when the moon is closest to us, offers an opportunity to get up close and personal with our nearest extraterrestrial body. But for the more conspiracy-minded, a super moon is a far from welcome sight.

Even before Japan's devastating earthquake struck Honshu, certain sections of the global blogosphere were already warning in breathless tones about an upcoming Moon armageddon caused by the extra gravitational pull of the moon's proximity. Richard Nolle, an American astrologer who claims to have coined the phrase "super moon" and – according to his own website – foresaw the 1993 World Trade Centre bombings, has predicted a whole host of global meteorological nightmares this weekend, including a surge in extreme tides, magnitude 5+ earthquakes and a slew of powerful storms.

"Being planetary in scale," he added ominously, "there's no place on our home planet that's beyond the range of a super moon, so it wouldn't hurt to make ready wherever you are or plan to be during the March 16-22 super moon risk window."

After the Japanese earthquake struck, what further proof was needed, especially once fellow bloggers claimed that the 2004 Asian tsunami and a large Australian flood in the mid-1950s also occurred close to a lunar perigee? Fortunately, seismologists, astronomers and most scientific consensus demand a lot more evidence before we blame the moon for natural disasters.

At its perigee, the moon is about 220,000 miles from Earth; at its furthest point, 254,000 miles. Although the moon's gravitational pull is a factor in oceanic tides, there is little evidence to suggest that its pull is great enough to have any substantial effect the Earth's tectonic activity or lead to freak weather patterns.

"Don't get me started on the blogosphere," says a rather weary Kevin Horsburgh, from the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool which monitors Britain's tidal pattern. "I don't know where they get their ideas. But the great thing about astronomy-driven tidal measurements is that they are completely predictable."

Tidal forces from the moon, Dr Horsburgh says, are roughly 10 to 15 per cent stronger during a lunar perigee which coincides with the spring tides once every four and a half years. "But that doesn't mean we'd expect the tides to be 10 to 15 per cent higher," he adds. At most, scientists say, we might expect to see tides rise by about an inch during a Super-Moon phase, hardly a figure that should create panic.

The Super-Moon scare stories have flourished unchecked on the Web among a long list of conspiracy theories. Phil Plait, writer of the Bad Astronomy blog (subtitle: "The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it"), aimed at debunking scientific myths, says attributing such powers to the moon makes no scientific sense. "Think about it," he says. "If there were some connection, and it were this obvious, geologists and seismologists would be issuing warnings every perigee and every full moon. These are people who have devoted their lives to understanding how the earth shakes, and would be screaming their heads off if it were something as easy and obvious as the moon. They don't because there's no connection."

The Japan earthquake and the Boxing Day tsunami struck during the lunar apogee, when the moon is furthest from us. In a phone call from Nevada, Mr Nolle said he had never blamed those events on Super-Moon theory. "But there are plenty of others," he said. "Christchurch, SuperMoon; Hurricane Katrina, SuperMoon. The scientific critics are not even attempting to look at super moon theory, they just go for the knee-jerk reaction."

Ironically, there is scientific evidence to suggest that the earth's gravitational pull causes earthquakes on the moon.

Thinking Big

The "Moon illusion" is what makes the Moon look enormous when it is close to the Earth's horizon. It is thought that the Moon is larger because our brains perceive it to be so. Why our brains make this mistake is a matter of debate. Some have argued that when the Moon is low on the horizon there are lots of objects such as hills, houses, trees against which you can compare its size. When it's high in the sky it sits in isolation and therefore looks smaller. But pilots flying at very high altitudes sometimes experience the Moon illusion too, without any objects in the foreground. In this case it is thought that the Moon appears larger because of the way we perceive the sky rather than the Moon itself.

The moon in numbers

220,000 Closest the Moon gets to Earth, in miles, during its perigee.

254,000 The maximum distance, in miles, between earth and moon.

12-13 Number of lunar perigees in an average year.

10-15% Increase in the Moon's gravitational pull during the Super-Moon phase.

5.5 Magnitude of the strongest quake ever measured on the Moon.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This design and print company a...

Recruitment Genius: Lift and Elevator Contract Manager - London

£38000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Engineer - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Engineer is required to...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Hull - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum + £4200 car allowance: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Suppo...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence