Supermoons and disasters: an ongoing story

March 19 sees the moon come very close to Earth, a phenomenon sometimes called a supermoon. Some say supermoons often coincide with disasters; others pooh-pooh a causal link.

There are those who believe that a full moon puts them in a strange mood and even causes them to behave in a peculiar manner.

Some, though, want to credit the moon with even greater powers.

A week before the earthquake in Japan, there was already consternation in some quarters about the so-called supermoon. This will occur on March 19 when the moon comes extremely close to the earth. That's 221,567 miles, to be a little more precise.

Headlines were already being written featuring the evocative word "Moonageddon" relying on the prognostications of astronomers or, perhaps, astrologists.

Some astronomers, such as David Reneke, wanted to dampen the fears.

"If you try hard enough, you can chronologically associate almost any natural disaster/event to anything in the night sky...comet, planet, sun," he told news.com.au.

Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

However, Victor Gostin, planetary and environmental geoscientist at Adelaide University, offered the thought that there might be some kind of link between moons and earthquakes.

"This is because the Earth-tides (analogous to ocean tides) may be the final trigger that sets off the earthquake," he told news.com.au.

Moreover, 11 days ago, Mark Paquette--on the Accuweather blog--also suggested there might be some connection. He wrote that there were supermoons in 1955, 1974, 1992, and 2005 and, in each of these years, there were extreme events of nature--of one kind or another.

Within days of the 2005 supermoon, for example, a 9.0 earthquake struck Indonesia. Then there was Hurricane Katrina later that year.

Last week, just nine days before another supermoon, came the Japanese earthquake, triggering a horrific tsunami and killing perhaps thousands of people. It is said to be the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded.

The Discover blog Bad Astronomy offers that it is simply impossible for any moon, super or otherwise, to have caused the Japanese earthquake. For the very simple reason that the Earth was last week nowhere near its closest point to the moon, technically called its perigee. Indeed, it was actually further away than average.

Yes, the blog says, the moon can affect tides but not in some gargantuan manner.

John S. Whalley, geoscience program manager at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., also suggested an important argument to the Daily Mail: "The real test is to look at the vast numbers of earthquakes of all magnitudes that occur on a daily basis worldwide."

In essence, if you want to believe that the moon caused this earthquake, how do you explain earthquakes in Chile or Haiti?

NASA astronomer Dave Williams told ABC News that all talk of supermoons was obvious nonsense: "It was basically a normal day on Earth as far as the lunar gravity and tidal forces were concerned. Unless the Earth somehow 'knew' the supermoon was coming, I can't imagine any scientific connection between the two events."

However, Richard Nolle, who created the term "supermoon," still believes they have a considerable influence on major natural events on Earth.

On his Twitter feed on March 9, Nolle posted this--to some, no doubt, ominous--tweet: "SuperMoon - the truth, straight from the source - http://www.astropro.com/forecast/predict/2011-all.html#SuperMoon - get ready for 3/16-3/22."

In the post to which he linked, he offered that precise dates were, in practice, inaccurate. He suggested a certain leeway should always be given.

He has not, so far as I can find, tweeted or posted to his blog after the Japanese quake. And I cannot find anyone with any scientific credibility who would support the notion that moons, super or not, caused the Japanese quake.

Indeed, some put it even more starkly. Space.com, having spoken to U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist John Bellini, offered the opinion that talk of an influential supermoon merely proves that astrology is simply not a science.

 

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