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Supermoon Earthquakes? Not Likely, Seismologists Say

Posted: 05/04/2012 9:31 am Updated: 05/04/2012 2:50 pm

Supermoon May 5
Be sure to tweet us your supermoon pics at @HuffPostScience, hashtag #supermoon! We'll be collecting user submissions from all over, and yours may be featured.

By: Natalie Wolchover
Published: 05/03/2012 10:45 AM EDT on Lifes Little Mysteries

Astronomers call it perigee-syzygy; the rest of us call it "supermoon." Either way, the alignment of the sun and moon will coincide with the moon's closest approach to Earth on Saturday (May 5), resulting in the biggest full moon of the year. But don't worry, it won't break Earth.

Saturday's supermoon will be especially super. Richard Nolle, the astrologer who coined the term "supermoon," defined it as a full moon that occurs within 12 hours of lunar perigee, or the point in the moon's slightly non-circular monthly orbit when it swings closest to our planet. On Saturday, the timing of the two events will be almost perfect: the moon will reach its perigee distance of 221,802 miles (356,955 kilometers) — the closest lunar perigee of 2012, in fact — at 11:34 p.m. Eastern Time, and it will fall in line with the sun (thereby becoming full) just one minute later.

Thus, our satellite will loom even larger than the supermoon of March 19, 2011, when perigee and full moon fell 50 minutes apart. Nonetheless, just as last year's supermoon passed by without triggering any of the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and chaos that were predicted by some corners of the Internet, this year's event will almost certainly be similarly tame. Seismologists have found no evidence to believe that supermoons heighten seismic activity — at least not over and above the effects of run-of-the-mill moons.

Under normal conditions, the moon is close enough to Earth to make its weighty presence felt: It causes the ebb and flow of the ocean tides. The moon's gravity can even cause small but measureable ebbs and flows in the continents, called "land tides" or "solid Earth tides," too. The tides are greatest during full and new moons, when the sun and moon are aligned either on the opposite or same sides of the Earth. [Photos: Mysterious Objects Spotted on the Moon]

According to John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, particularly dramatic land and ocean tides do occasionally trigger earthquakes. "Both the moon and sun do stress the Earth a tiny bit, and when we look hard we can see a very small increase in tectonic activity when they're aligned," Vidale told Life's Little Mysteries during the furor surrounding last year's supermoon.

At times of full and new moons, "you see a less-than-1-percent increase in earthquake activity, and a slightly higher response in volcanoes," he said.

However, the moon's smidgen of extra gravitational pull at lunar perigee is not a big enough increase from its pull at other times to measurably increase the likelihood of natural disasters. "A lot of studies have been done on this kind of thing by USGS scientists and others," said John Bellini, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "They haven't found anything significant at all."

The scientists said the effect of the supermoon is somewhere between "it has no effect" and "the effect is so small you don't see it."

In short, Vidale told us in anticipation of Saturday's event, tidal forces are real but tiny. "The stresses driving earthquakes are orders of magnitude larger. Decades of earthquake records show at best a minuscule influence of tides on the times of earthquakes. No extra fear of earthquakes is warranted during a 'supermoon', although a healthy respect for their destructive power is appropriate at all times."

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the close encounter with our nearest and dearest cosmic companion. And if you snap an amazing photo of the supermoon and would like to share it with SPACE.com for a story or gallery, send photos and comments to managing editor Tariq Malik at: tmalik@space.com.

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Lifes Little Mysteries, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • A perigee moon rises above the Almudena

    A perigee moon rises above the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid on March 19, 2011. A perigee moon is visible when the moon's orbit position is at its closest point to Earth during a full moon phase. AFP PHOTOAFP PHOTO/ Pedro ARMESTRE (Photo credit should read PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Biggest Moon In Almost 20 Years Rises In DC

    WASHINGTON - MARCH 19: In this handout photo provided by NASA, the full moon is seen as it rises near the Lincoln Memorial, March 19, 201, in Washington, DC. The full moon tonight is called a 'Super Perigee Moon' since it is at it's closest to Earth in 2011. The last full moon so big and close to Earth occurred in March of 1993. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)

  • A perigee moon rises next to the Nationa

    A perigee moon rises next to the National Monument and the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2011. A perigee moon is visible when the moon's orbit position is at its closest point to Earth during a full moon phase. The full moon coincided with its closest approach to the Earth, 221,565 miles (356,575 km), making the so-called 'super moon' look slightly larger than average. AFP PHOTO / Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A perigee moon rises in Washington, DC,

    A perigee moon rises in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2011. A perigee moon is visible when the moon's orbit position is at its closest point to Earth during a full moon phase. The full moon coincided with its closest approach to the Earth, 221,565 miles (356,575 km), making the so-called 'super moon' look slightly larger than average. AFP PHOTO / Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • The full moon rises behind the statue of

    The full moon rises behind the statue of Mahathma Gandhi in Hyderabad on March 19, 2011. Full Moons vary in size because of the oval shape of the Moon's orbit. It is an ellipse with one side (perigee) about 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other (apogee). Nearby perigee moons are about 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than lesser moons that occur on the apogee side of the Moon's orbit. According to US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. 'The full Moon of March 19 occurs less than one hour away from perigeea near-perfect coincidence that happens only 18 years or so'. AFP PHOTO/Noah SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

  • The full moon is seen behind a bronze st

    The full moon is seen behind a bronze statue standing on the left bank of Vltava river on Mala Strana Prague's quarter early on March 20, 2011. The full moon coincided with its closest approach to the Earth, 221,565 miles (356,575 km), making the so-called 'super moon' look slightly larger than average. AFP PHOTO / MICHAL CIZEK (Photo credit should read MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • The full moon rises over rooftops March

    The full moon rises over rooftops March 19, 2011 in this view from the east side of Manhattan in New York. The full moon coincided with its closest approach to the Earth, 221,565 miles (356,575 km), making the so-called 'super moon' look slightly larger than average. AFP PHOTO / Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A March 20, 2011 photo taken at approxim

    A March 20, 2011 photo taken at approximately 0457 GMT shows the moon seen from Chevy Chase, Maryland. The moon is in its closest orbit to Earth, at 356,577 Kms away, the closest in 18 years. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • The statue of freedom, ontop of the US C

    The statue of freedom, ontop of the US Capitol Hill is pictured against a perigee moon as it rises in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2011. A perigee moon is visible when the moon's orbit position is at its closest point to Earth during a full moon phase. The full moon coincided with its closest approach to the Earth, 221,565 miles (356,575 km), making the so-called 'super moon' look slightly larger than average. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A perigee moon rises in Washington, DC,

    A perigee moon rises in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2011. A perigee moon is visible when the moon's orbit position is at its closest point to Earth during a full moon phase. The full moon coincided with its closest approach to the Earth, 221,565 miles (356,575 km), making the so-called 'super moon' look slightly larger than average. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • The full moon rises March 19, 2011 in th

    The full moon rises March 19, 2011 in this view from the east side of Manhattan in New York. The full moon coincided with its closest approach to the Earth, 221,565 miles (356,575 km), making the so-called 'super moon' look slightly larger than average. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Supermoon from Fort Hood, Tx

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/KillerNeuron"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://i.huffpost.com/profiles/1374500-tiny.png?20101229005527" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/KillerNeuron">KillerNeuron</a>:<br />The moon as seen from Ft. Hood, Texas, approximately 2 hours after moonrise.

  • Supermoon above San Sebastian

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Femia_Cools"></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Femia_Cools">Femia Cools</a>:<br />

  • The Supermoon illusion

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/doodlewhale"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/1537564.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/doodlewhale">doodlewhale</a>:<br />

  • Super Moon, North Phoenix

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/NunyaBus99"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/NunyaBus99">NunyaBus99</a>:<br />Taken during a cloud cover break 9pm AZ time.

  • Super Moon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/ecokaren"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/ecokaren">ecokaren</a>:<br />Super Perigee Moon with 70mm

  • Norfolk UK 1900hrs

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Richard_J_Hodds"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/767559643/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Richard_J_Hodds">Richard J Hodds</a>:<br />Norfolk UK 1900hrs RJHodds

  • Supermoon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Regaleyes"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/twitter_profile_img/1537620.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Regaleyes">Regaleyes</a>:<br />Supermoon 19 March 2010 shines brightly over Buckinghamshire, UK

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    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Uwe_Peppel"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/100001278402741/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Uwe_Peppel">Uwe Peppel</a>:<br />Rooftop-terrace view of the full moon rising over downtown Frankfurt on March 19, 2011. The brightly illuminated building front in the foreground is on the 'Zeil', Franfurt's main shopping street.

  • Super Moon Seen in Cochin India

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/kleykamal"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/kleykamal">kleykamal</a>:<br />This picture was taken at 3.50 am . Location Cochin Kerala. India

  • Moon at perigee - Maharagama, Sri Lanka

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Anson_Holzer"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/592154409/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Anson_Holzer">Anson Holzer</a>:<br />Earth's Moon at its super-perigee. Maharagama, Sri Lanka. (March 20, 2011) Photo: Anson Holzer

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    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/David_G_Kramer"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/David_G_Kramer">David G Kramer</a>:<br />Supermoon over Clearwater, Florida

  • moon over Coral springs

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Misha57"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Misha57">Misha57</a>:<br />in my yard at 8:30 pm. Fl.

  • Super Moon Over New York City . View from Weehawkeen NJ

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Juan_Manzano"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/1319085035/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Juan_Manzano">Juan Manzano</a>:<br />Super Moon Over NYC, s viewed from Weehawkeen NJ, Saturday March 19, 2011 -----Juan Manzano

  • Moon over Parliament Hill

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/cenedra"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/cenedra">cenedra</a>:<br />Canada's Capital, Ottawa

  • Illumination

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Eric_Schilling"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/1421850119/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Eric_Schilling">Eric Schilling</a>:<br />Super moon was beautiful, but Earth stole the show.

  • Moon over Upper Makefield, PA

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Mark_Setash"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/629359761/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Mark_Setash">Mark Setash</a>:<br />

  • Atlantic Supermoon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/jaxbnimble"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/jaxbnimble">jaxbnimble</a>:<br />Ocean City, Maryland

  • Orange Moon Over the Atlantic Ocean

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/tdl966"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/tdl966">tdl966</a>:<br />

  • Our bright and loyal friend

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Zvibi"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Zvibi">Zvibi</a>:<br />From my roof in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Sam Zvibleman)

  • Super Moon outside Quincy, Washington, 8:53pm

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Val_Mohney"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/542238230/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Val_Mohney">Val Mohney</a>:<br />

  • Perigee Moon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/IBEW1377"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/IBEW1377">IBEW1377</a>:<br />March 19 2011 The Supermoon rises over Euclid Ohio. William Albright/Albrightartworx

  • Blue Moon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/IBEW1377"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/IBEW1377">IBEW1377</a>:<br />A perigee moon is a rare event hence the title. William Albright/Albrightartworx

  • Super Moon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Austin_Lepri"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/1556156515/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Austin_Lepri">Austin Lepri</a>:<br />photographed in Frederick Maryland by Austin Lepri.

  • Supermoon from Brooklyn, NY

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Ben_BasallaTaxis"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Ben_BasallaTaxis">Ben BasallaTaxis</a>:<br />

  • Supermoon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/klao39"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/klao39">klao39</a>:<br />Goodrich, Michigan

  • Super Moon in Raleigh, North Carolina

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Terisaylor"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Terisaylor">Terisaylor</a>:<br />The sky was hazy as the Super Moon rose over Raleigh, NC. I shot this photo at around 8:00 p.m. as it was rising. In a hazy glow, it finally appeared over the treeline and peeked from behind the clouds.

  • Moonrise over Queens, NY

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/David_Loomar"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/100001773561682/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/David_Loomar">David Loomar</a>:<br />

  • PLANE OVER MOON

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/dolphinfreddy"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/dolphinfreddy">dolphinfreddy</a>:<br />PLANE CROSSING SUPERMOON

  • Supermoon behind Jupiter Florida Lighthouse

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  • Prague's Super moon

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  • The moon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/blackwell963"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/blackwell963">blackwell963</a>:<br />This picture was taken at 8:20 pm . Location WASH.DC USA

  • super moon from western North Carolina 03/19/11

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  • Supermoon

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/David_G_Kramer"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/David_G_Kramer">David G Kramer</a>:<br />Supermoon Over Clearwater, Fl

  • Supermoon over Ellijay GA 3/19/2011

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/arcee007"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/google_profile_img/1517800.png" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/arcee007">arcee007</a>:<br />

  • Supermoon

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  • Super Moon Rising over wetland in Oberlin, OH

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  • Crow Moon

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  • Lake Huron Super Moon

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  • Austin-tatious!

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  • Texas Supermoon

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