By Paul Lonardo
The first full moon of 2019 was a spectacular and rare sight to behold, as three lunar phenomena converged to give rise to what has been referred to as a “super blood wolf moon,” which is a type of total lunar eclipse.
For millennia, lunar eclipses have garnered both awe and fear, but a lunar eclipse is simply the Earth casting a shadow on the moon. This is not something that happens every time the moon makes its monthly journey around our planet because the moon’s orbit is tilted, so it usually glides above or below Earth’s cone-shaped shadow. Total lunar eclipses are even more rare, as they happen only during a full moon, and only when the sun, Earth, and moon are precisely aligned so that the darkest part of our planet’s shadow completely blankets the moon. This usually happens twice a year, on average, and each total eclipse can be seen from only one hemisphere of Earth.
The last total eclipse of the moon occurred on July 27, 2018. Last month’s total eclipse was the first to be seen in its entirety in North America in nearly three and half years. Rhode Islanders missing this one will have to wait until May 26, 2021 to get their next opportunity.
Last month, the total lunar eclipse lasted nearly 3.5 hours, starting with the partial eclipse phase, when Earth’s shadow took its first bite out of the moon, at 10:34 p.m. on January 20. The last hint of this shadow left the lunar disk at 1:51 a.m. on January 21. Totality lasted a full 63 minutes, with the maximum eclipse – when the moon is at its deepest, most dramatic coloration – seen at 12:12 a.m.
The designation of this event as “super blood wolf moon” is what makes last month’s total lunar eclipse so extraordinary. First off, the term “super” refers to the moon’s distance from Earth. A supermoon is the coincidence of a full moon (or a new moon) at the same time that the moon is closest to Earth in its elliptical orbit. The moniker “supermoon” gives an impression that the moon might appear gigantic, and while the orb can be as much as 14% closer to the Earth at this point (perigee) than at its furthest point (apogee), scientists say that supermoons don’t actually look bigger than ordinary full moons, though they do appear about 16% brighter and may elevate the ocean’s tides within a day or two of the event.
The reference to “blood” describes the reddish tinge that the full moon takes on as the earth’s shadow comes between the Sun and the moon. Thus, a total lunar eclipse is sometimes called a “Blood Moon.” The moon’s color during totality can vary considerably depending on the amount of dust in the atmosphere at the time. During a lunar eclipse, sunlight shining through Earth’s dusty atmosphere is bent, or refracted, toward the red part of the spectrum before it is cast onto the moon’s surface. As a result, the lunar disk goes from a dark gray color during the partial phase of the eclipse to a reddish-orange color during totality.
The first full moon of each year is also traditionally called the “Full Wolf Moon,” a name that comes from early colonial times, according to the old Farmer’s Almanac. It is thought to have been dubbed the Wolf Moon by Native American tribes because at this time of year wolves often howl in their search for scarce prey. Food shortages in winter months force the animals to travel around more as they scavenge for food. Wolves, competing with humans for food, are more easily seen and heard, and sometimes gather outside villages.
The link between wolves and the moon go back thousands of years and permeate many cultures. The idea of werewolves became popularized in Europe during the witch trials, when people thought witches could transform themselves into animals. The full moon being the cause of transformation only became a common part of the werewolf myth in the 20th century.
Full moon names tend to reflect the goings on of that time of the year. For example, February’s moon is known as the full “Snow Moon” because traditionally this is the month where most snow falls.
So a Super Blood Wolf Moon is: a) the first full moon in January; b) a full moon occurring when the distance between the Earth and Moon is as short as possible; c) a lunar eclipse: with all happening at once.
Super Blood Wolf Moons are highly uncommon: only 28 are expected to align this century. The January supermoon, however, happens to kick off a triad of supermoons in 2019. So be on the lookout for the next supermoons, which will appearing on February 19 and March 21.