What It Is, What It Means

© 2011 by Richard Nolle
last updated MAR 22, 2011

SuperMoonClearly there's a lot of confusion about what's really a SuperMoon. I know, because I created and defined the term in an article published over 30 years ago. When I see people misrepresenting the idea, not really understanding it at all, I feel impelled - not compelled - to try and set the record straight. Words mean things, after all . . . For example, referring to the date of the last SuperMoon as 18 years ago - as several media reports are doing lately - is completely wrong. There are 4-6 SuperMoons a year on average. The one on March 19, 2011 is in fact the closest SuperMoon of the year, but it's not by any means the first one in 18 years, nor even the first extreme SuperMoon in 18 years. The truth is, March 19 will be the second SuperMoon this year, and we only have to go back to January 30, 2010 to find the last example of an extreme SuperMoon; as revealed in my tables published in the last century. There was a SuperMoon in effect February 12-21 this year in fact, which anyone who actually read my 2011 World Forecast Highlights would know. And I'm sure you're aware of the Christchurch earthquake that practically destroyed that city on the last day of that interval. (All my forecasts are in UT, in which February 21 equates to February 22 New Zealand time.) The Christchurch earthquake is now being called the worst in New Zealand history, a title formerly held by the Hawke's Bay earthquake of February 3, 1931 - another SuperMoon, in case you hadn't guessed. I've done a few interviews on this subject already, for example on the Red Symons ABC Radio program in Melbourne, Australia; and in each and every case the contact was due to other sources writing about "supermoon" effects which do not fit within the parameters as I defined them more than three decades ago. Clearly, it's time to set the record straight. (This is a work in progress, in fact just the stub of an article I'm writing to clear up all the confusion - so check back often to get the whole story.)

Rush Limbaugh had it right when he talked about the SuperMoon on his radio show a couple days before the March 19, 2011 alignment: this hysteria was media crisis-mongering. He then managed to fall into the same trap as the rest of the media, in claiming that "Richard Nolle is out there warning everybody now that it could be disastrous out there." Contrast what Rush said I said, with what I actually said. The crazies and low-hanging fruit-pickers aside, there has been been a surfeit of moderate-to-severe (magnitude 5+) seismic activity during the March 19 SuperMoon window: 66 at last count, not quite halfway through the cycle. However much of this shaking consists of aftershocks from the magnitude 9.0 mega-quake that struck Japan on March 11 (midway between the February and March SuperMoons and within the customary plus or minus 30 hour window of the March 12 north lunar declination peak Ė the same combination of lunar extremes present when the December 26, 2004 Aceh mega-quake and tsunami struck). The more selective USGS "Significant Earthquake" list has one entry for the March 16-22 SuperMoon seismic shock window to date: a magnitude 6.3 temblor near the island of Vanuatu on the 17th - dead-on under one of the risk lines called out in my 2011 forecast and illustrated in the astro-locality map linked there. Meanwhile, the Karangetang volcano erupted in Siau island in the North Sulawesi province of Indonesia on the 18th, trapping a few dozen people between lava flows on its slopes, and forcing hundreds to evacuate their homes. And there was an outbreak of severe weather in northern California that knocked out power to several thousand homes on the 18th, with heavy rain, hail, strong winds and even a tornado strike. Although far and away removed from the media hype, this is precisely the kind of thing I predicted for this SuperMoon: "a surge in extreme tides along the coasts, a rash of moderate-to-severe seismic activity (including Richter 5+ earthquakes, tsunami and volcanic eruptions), and most especially in this case a dramatic spike in powerful storms with heavy precipitation, damaging winds and extreme electrical activity. Floods are a big part of the picture in this case, although some of these will be dry electrical storms that spark fast-spreading wildfires." (What's this I hear about wildfires in Colorado on the 22nd, after the storms came through?)

SuperMoon is a word I coined in a 1979 article for Dell Publishing Company's HOROSCOPE magazine, describing a new or full moon which occurs with the Moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit. In short, Earth, Moon and Sun are all in a line, with Moon in its nearest approach to Earth. At any new or full moon, Earth and Moon and Sun are all in a line: Earth is in the middle in the full moon alignment, while the new moon happens with Moon in the middle. This coming together in an alignment is technically termed a syzygy. Sometimes - from a few times to a half-dozen times in a given year - these alignments also happen when the Moon is in its perigee, or closest approach to Earth. Astronomers call this very special alignment a perigee-syzygy. I call it a SuperMoon Ė which is a whole lot easier on the tongue. (My most recent print article on this subject appeared in the October-November 2007 issue of The Mountain Astrologer.)

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. SuperMoon solar eclipses tend to have a wider sphere of impact, extending roughly a week before and after the actual event. And other lunar extremes (of declination, for example) can extend the geocosmic stress window by a day or two here and there in any case.

If you're interested in the history of SuperMoon alignments in connection with great storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, you'll find a sampling of them in my book Interpreting Astrology (published by the American Federation of Astrologers). But a simple review of the news over the past few years should serve to get you acquainted. Take Hurricane Katrina, for example; spawned from a tropical depression formed within three days of the August 19 SuperMoon. My forecast for 2005 warned of severe storms within plus or minus three days of the day Hurricane Katrina formed, and even specified the Gulf of Mexico as one of the areas at risk in connection with that particular SuperMoon alignment. I've done this for over thirty years now, from articles in the astrology press to the online forecasts at my website, astropro. You can play along at home, using my handy tables of all 20th and 21st Century SuperMoon alignments. (You might even find that you were born under a SuperMoon.)

Examples of the SuperMoon connection with major storms and seismic events abound: the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, the largest volcanic event in the second half of the 20th Century, took place on June 15, 1991 (within three days of a SuperMoon); the October 6, 1948 Richter 7.3 earthquake that struck Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and took 110,000 lives, one of the deadliest earthquakes on record (again within three days of a SuperMoon, allowing for time zones); and the September 8, 1900 hurricane and tidal surge that struck Galveston, Texas on the day of a SuperMoon, which killed more people (8,000 dead) than any other Atlantic hurricane on record and remains the deadliest natural disaster yet to strike the United States. I'm just scratching the surface here, citing only a few historic instances in the past hundred years or so. Look a little deeper, and you'll run across literally hundreds more greater and lesser seismic and meteorological disturbances, from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 to the 1989 World Series (Loma Prieta) earthquake - just to name a couple contemporary notable examples.

More recently, there was the February 28, 2010 SuperMoon, which well illustrates the storm and seismic potential associated with this alignment. As described in my 2010 World Forecast Highlights, the geocosmic shock window associated with the February 28 SuperMoon ran "from February 25 through March 3," signaling a "newsworthy upsurge in moderate-to-severe seismic activity (including magnitude 5+ earthquakes and volcanic eruptions), plus strong storms with damaging winds and heavy precipitation; along with extreme high tides." My forecast described the alignment as "global in scope by definition," but with "special risk zones" including "west-central South America." If you donít remember it, Google the freakish combination of a monster megathrust 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile, a Pacific tsunami, the "snow hurricane" in the Northeastern US, and hurricane-force killer winds in France - all happening at once on February 27.

"Obviously," as I wrote in my 2011 World Forecast Highlights, "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 of 2011. For most of us, the geocosmic risk raised by SuperMoon alignments will pass with little notice in our immediate vicinity. In the grand scheme of things, we may live on a little blue marble in space; but itís still a rather roomy planet, after all. A SuperMoon is planetary in scale, being a special alignment of Earth, Sun and Moon. By the same token, itís planetary in scope, in the sense that there's no place on Earth not subject to the tidal force of the perigee-syzygy. Of course, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions don't go wandering all over the planet. They happen in (mostly) 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. Astro-locality mapping each SuperMoon can help indicate areas of special risk, but the whole planet is in the bullís eye when one of these geocosmic shock windows opens up. Donít be paranoid Ė but donít be complacent, either."

That said, there's no harm in making sensible preparations for this yearís SuperMoons. 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. It certainly will come to pass somewhere Ė hopefully far from you and me, but we canít be sure of that.

If what you just read doesnít sound anything like what youíve been told to expect from a SuperMoon alignment, itís because a great many people have played fast and loose with the term. I created it, I defined it, I should know. Donít get me wrong, Iím far from the first person in history to notice the connection between lunar perigee-syzygy and powerful tides stirring up Earthís atmosphere, crust and oceans.

Lunar perigee-syzygy was first brought to my attention in 1978, when I read Fergus Wood's Strategic Role of Perigean Spring Tides. Wood's treatise concentrates on the tide-raising power of perigee-syzygy, but upon reading it and digging into a bit of history, I quickly became convinced that this is a phenomenon of far more than tidal significance. And I also discovered that ancient astrologers and astronomers were not totally oblivious to the phenomenon. In the 2nd Century BCE, Hipparchus had noticed that the Moon appears larger at certain times of the lunar month, and reasoned that this was due to Luna being closer to Earth at such times - perigee, of course. A few hundred years later, Ptolemy focused on soli-lunar syzygies as keys to the cosmic equation: "There are certain particular consequences which result from the New and Full Moon." From Hippparchus pointing to lunar perigee and Ptolemy recognizing the importance of soli-lunar syzygy, it's a small step to putting the two together - and what you get is SuperMoon.

How much bigger does a SuperMoon full moon look, compared to a full moon that occurs with Luna at apogee (the most distant point from Earth in the Moonís orbit)? Some critics have charged that you canít tell the difference, which is just plain silly. A very close estimate of the difference in apparent size can be obtained from the ratio of the full moonís distance at perigee, divided by the full moonís distance at apogee. (The result from this method actually agrees to within less than one percent of the actual difference in apparent size as measured in pixels with a CCD.) Take for example the March 19, 2011 SuperMoon, at 356,577 km. away. Compare that to the 406,434 km. distance of the apogee full moon on October 12, 2011: 406,434/356,577 = 1.1398. This puts the Moon 13% (49,857 km.) closer to Earth on the March 19 SuperMoon than it is on the October 12, 2011 full moon. The intensity of light being the inverse square of the distance between a light source and an observer, squaring this ratio tells us how much brighter the March 19 SuperMoon appears in comparison to the October 12 apogee full moon: 1.1398^2 = 1.299, or 30% brighter.

While weíre on the subject of math, Iíve had questions from people who claim that my definition of SuperMoon is nonsensical because "the Earth-Moon distance is *always* "90% or greater of its mean closest approach". Sometimes, what appears to be nonsensical only seems so, because it's not understood. You could figure this out for yourself with a calculator, if you were so inclined. (They say it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, after all.) Maybe I can help. Maybe not. There's none so blind, the saying goes, as the one who will not see.

Start with my table of lunar apogees and perigees for 2011. Notice the year's extreme apogee (406,655 km. on APR 2) and extreme perigee (356,577 on MAR 19). The difference is 50,078 km., and 90% of that difference is 45,070 km. Any syzygy which is closer than 406,655 km. - 45,070 km. = 361,585 km. qualifies as a SuperMoon, being at least 90% of the way to the closest Earth-Moon separation. Or use mean values, as given at Wikipedia: mean apogee 406,731 km. - mean perigee 364,397 km. = 42,334 km. * .9 = 38,101 km.; 406,731 km. - 38,101 km. = 368,630 km.; any lunation closer than 368,630 km. = SuperMoon.

Clearly, the Moon cannot be *always* at 90% or greater its closest mean approach, if in some cases it is less than 90% of that distance. Again, calculator time: the Moon on APR 2, being 50,078 km. farther than its closest approach to Earth of the year, is at 0% of that closest distance; while the Moon on MAR 19 is at 100% of that closest approach. Seriously, so many of these critics are really only interested in criticizing - which they do without first bothering to know what they're talking about. But that's just the way skeptics are. They're critical for sure, but they aren't thinking critically. They're debunkers, not skeptics - and there's a huge difference. A skeptic rationally and with an open mind examines a subject with no foredrawn conclusion about the final analysis. A debunker starts out with absolutely no intention of anything other than proving the idea under attack to be groundless - a heresy, a superstition, an affront to reason. Who's the affront to reason: the one with the open-minded, open-ended analysis, or the one whose foredrawn conclusion will let nothing stand in its way?

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