Here’s a little known fact about supermoons: They’re made up and a complete waste of everyone’s time.
Supermoons are a by-product of an always-on media machine that demands a constant stream of things to comment on and—in the absence of actual commentary-worthy items—is more than willing to completely fabricate them.
The term “supermoon” refers to a full moon that occurs when the moon makes its closest approach to the Earth during its monthly orbit. Sounds like it should make for a really big fat full moon that is entirely worthy of attention, right? Not so much.
While so-called supermoons are indeed bigger and brighter than the average full moon, the difference is barely even worth noting. Considering that there’s nothing to compare the moon to when it’s up in the sky, so the slight difference in size will be imperceptible to most people—certainly to people with busy lives who don’t spend their evenings contemplating the size of the moon.
The moon travels in an elliptical orbit around the Earth; it swoops in as close as 226,000 miles (during the lunar perigee) and wanders as far away as 252,000 miles (the lunar apogee). The difference in distance between the lunar apogee and perigee (26,000 miles) may sound like a big deal (indeed, it’s slightly larger than the Earth’s circumference), but it’s damn near meaningless at the interplanetary scale.
— HOLLYWOOD.COM (@Hollywood_com) August 25, 2015
To observers on Earth, a full moon that happens during the lunar perigee (i.e. the not-really-a-thing supermoon) only appears to be 12 to 14 percent larger than it does during the lunar apogee (i.e. the less famous, but just as meaningless “micromoon“). That’s hardly super. And keep in mind, that 14 percent size difference between the moon’s absolute apparent largest and its absolute apparent smallest. Any casual observer wouldn’t notice the difference.
Think of it another way: Let’s say Dr. Bruce Banner is a completely average American male who measures in at around 5′ 9″ and tips the scales at 196 pounds. Going by the supermoon’s standards for super-ness (e.g. 14 percent larger), whenever the good doctor becomes agitated, he transforms into a Hulk who stands at 6′ 7″ and weighed 223 pounds. In this instance, the Hulk would be slightly smaller than LeBron James. Intimidating on the basketball court? Perhaps. But hardly “incredible” and definitely not super.
So, where did this nonsense come from? As far as I can tell, the term “supermoon” was coined by “certified professional astrologer” Richard Nolle (you can find his super 90s-style website here). Nolle defines a supermoon as a full moon that occurs when the moon is within 90 percent of its closest approach to Earth. That’s a pretty generous definition and one which Nolle himself admits results in four to six supermoons every year. So, not only are they unremarkable to look at, they’re pretty damn common.
The weird thing is that Nolle apparently first started using the phrase some 30 years ago, but it’s only recently made its way into our national lexicon. According to Google Trends, there was virtually no talk about “supermoons” at all until 2011 as you can see here:
Web interest in supermoons had an initial and sudden spike followed by smaller periodic spikes over the years. So, what happened in 2011? Answer: Absolute devastation.
On March 11, 2011, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan and resulted in a tsunami and catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. As it turned out, this horrific event happened to take place more than a week before a scheduled supermoon, which was already the subject of speculation in certain virtual circles. With the help of social media, word spread around the Web that the moon may have been the cause of this catastrophe. That meme, in turn, triggered a scientific rebuttal, which only further amplified the whole notion of “supermoons,” which very few people had heard of just a few days prior.
(For the record, most scientists acknowledge that the moon can affect tidal and tectonic forces on Earth, however there is no indication that full moons that happen to take place during the lunar perigee have any discernable effect on things like earthquakes and volcanoes. Indeed, to reiterate, the March 2011 supermoon was still more than a week away from the Japanese earthquake.)
Following the earthquake chatter, the supermoon just sort of took off as a thing that people should pay attention to, possibly be scared of, but definitely make sure to shoot and #hashtag on Instagram. And there we are now: Supermoon. Even NASA has adopted the term—but it’s just happy anyone is paying attention to space things.
Similarly, the media recently manufactured another lunar phenomenon which is not really a thing: The so-called “blood moon.” It’s a phrase that you might have heard thrown about in regards to a batch of lunar eclipses that occured between 2014 and 2015 (as part of a so-called “lunar tetrad“). Spooky name, right? It probably has something to do with the blood red hue of those particular eclipses. No. You know why? Because ALL lunar eclipses turn red—it’s how light from the sun refracts through the Earth’s atmosphere.
The problem here begins with us, your humble media—specifically those of us in the blogging camp. Bloggers have story quotas to fill and page view expectations to meet. And sometimes, there just isn’t anything going on. But editors don’t want to hear that. No, bloggers are compelled to latch on to any shred of content and—in pursuit of gaining as many eyeballs as possible—sex up the story as much as possible.
To that end, you will very likely see some heated stories on this subject in the run up to the November 14 supermoon. As previously noted, supermoons are not an uncommon phenomenon (there was just one on October 16 and they’ll be another one on December 14), so why is there so much attention being paid to the 11/14 supermoon? Well, as you’ll undoubtedly see shared throughout your social media feeds, this will be the closest full moon to the Earth since 1948. In fact, it will come with just a few hours of the moon’s closes approach of the Earth. We won’t get another full moon like this until 2034.
Not so much. Using the aforementioned Incredible Hulk / LeBron James metaphor—instead of being just short of LeBron, the “Hulk” (i.e. the “supermoon”) would be full LeBron sized. Now he’s a big dude, but if you saw someone of that size walking down the stret, you might take notice but you wouldn’t stop and stare (especially if they were standing alone without anything to compare their size to).
If you go out and look at the moon the 14th expecting to catch a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will confirm your place in the galaxy, you may be underwhelmed. It’s going to be a nice big bright moon, but life will be no different on 11/15, I promise you.
It’s just the friggin’ moon, people. Its phases and orbit are quite well understood. The real thing you should look out for is people who put real emotional stock in ominous-sounding things like “supermoons” and “blood moons.” Those are the people who may use it as an excuse for all manner of poor decisions.
So over the next few weeks, if you see someone posting about the #SuperMoon, just tell them to take a breath. It’s just the same old #StupidMoon. Amen.