Are you ready for the “Supermoon” on Saturday?

A Supermoon is when a full moon or new moon occurs during the Moon’s closest travels around the Earth (perigee). If it’s a full Moon, it will be larger and brighter in the sky since it’s at its closest point. This one, however, is going to be a little anticlimactic because it’s a new moon, which is invisible to the Earth. Visible or invisible, the Moon is still a very interesting part of nature and our lives.

A new moon occurs when there is a conjunction in the Sun-Earth-Moon system. They’re all lined up, and in this case, the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth. The side of the Moon that is toward the Earth is totally dark. The Moon also gets lost in the glare of the Sun when the Moon rises and the Sun sets, and vice versa.

Even though it may be invisible sometimes, the Moon still affects the Earth, especially during a new moon or full moon combined with perigee. The gravitational pull of the Moon is increased due to its proximity, and combines with that of the Sun in these cases of alignment making the high tides higher during these phases. Studies have also been done to look at the effect of the Moon on the Earth’s crust in relation to earthquakes or how it relates to volcanic eruptions. The gravitational force of the Moon helps limit the wobble of the Earth as it spins on its axis. Watch a spinning top if you want a visual of the wobble possible with a spinning body.

Besides the effect of the Moon’s gravitational pull on the tides and stabilizing Earth’s rotation, there are a number of beliefs about the effects of the Moon, especially a full moon, on human and animal behavior. The origin of the word lunacy has a direct connection with the Moon (luna = moon). Having a seizure, acting oddly or violently, and many other circumstances that historically were attributed to the influence of the Moon on human behavior, have been found to have little to no connection by a number of scientific studies. One study did show that the chance of taking your pet for a visit to the emergency room increases during a full moon but the actual connection is uncertain. Are people and pets simply more active during this time since there’s more light?

A likely cause for some of the connection between odd events and the full moon is based on coincidence. The large, bright Moon is so noticeable; it’s easy to suspect it has a causal relationship to anything weird that happens that day. If the same odd event happened on any other day, it would just be a weird occurrence.

Since the human body is 70 percent water and the Moon has enough gravitational pull to cause changes in the tides of the oceans, there are some that contend that the Moon does have effects on human and animal behavior, just like the tides. The counter-argument is that humans, as individuals, aren’t big enough to be affected by the Moon’s gravity in any way that’s noticeable, since the effect of the Moon’s gravity on the Earth is based on mass and distance. But what about the light, or lack of it, from the Moon, is it a trigger instead of the gravity? Are the effects of the Moon diminished by modern lighting? Modern lighting has already been proven to have disruptive effects on wildlife around it, but light pollution is another topic for another day.

The bright Moon gives more light for activity — good or bad — during the night. High levels of moonlight from a full moon do have effects down here on Earth. They have been found to play a major role in a massive synchronized release of egg and sperm by coral off the coast of Australia. The bright light from the full moon may also cause animals that are usually active during the night to cling to the shadows or simply stay home. This can result in poor hunting for a predator and could cause a change in hunting patterns around the time of a full moon. Such a change has been documented in the hunting habits of lions around full moons. On the other hand, no light during a new moon may encourage more activity in nocturnal species.

What are the effects of the Moon and which are due to gravity or the amount of light? Those answers are still unclear in many areas. In 1969, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as we moved forward in our exploration of space. Whether it’s going to the Moon, studying the effects of the Moon on Earth and its inhabitants, or finding an undiscovered species of animal or new antibiotic still hidden in the rainforest, the natural world around us has much more to share with us. When you have a chance, come by the zoo and see what you can discover.

 

Kristi Newland is the executive director of Lee Richardson Zoo.