Supermoon Sunday: What makes it a Beaver Supermoon?

In a news cycle full of full moons – Black Moons, Strawberry Moons, Wolf Moons, and Super-Blood-Harvest Moons – those names may begin to lose meaning. Has the monthly moon hype gone too far?

Pete Caster/The Chronicle/AP
In this photo taken in September 2016, Barklee, a six-month-old beaver, uses its hind legs to scratch an itch at his enclosure at For Heaven's Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation in Rochester, Wash.

On Sunday night, skywatchers will be able to see the largest full moon since 1948. Well, sort of.

When the full moon rises late this weekend, it will coincide with perigee – the closest point in the moon’s orbit. This so-called Supermoon will come closer than any other in the last 70 years, and won’t be rivaled until 2034. The November full moon is sometimes called the Beaver Moon, thus the “Beaver Supermoon” was born.

But as media outlets and backyard astronomers hype the lunar event, not everyone can agree on a name. It's true that the moon's actual distance from Earth will be unusually close on Nov. 13, scientists say. But in a news cycle full of moons – Black Moons, Strawberry Moons, Wolf Moons, and Super-Blood-Harvest Moons – those names may begin to lose meaning. Has the monthly moon hype gone too far?

The Beaver Moon was originally coined by the Algonquin people. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, beaver trappers would set their bait right around the time of the November full moon. Timed correctly, they would have enough furs to last the winter. American colonists adopted the term, along with the synonymous “Frost Moon.”

Such names are relics of seasonal timekeeping practices. The Harvest Moon got its title because it comes at the time of year when farmers could use extra light in the evening to bring in their harvests.

“Farmers could perform chores by moonlight that they were not able to complete during the day, especially when all the fruit was suddenly ripe,” Bernd Brunner, author of “Moon: A Brief History,” tells the Monitor in an email. “In the fall, under the light of the Harvest Moon – the full moon rising at around sunset for several evenings in a row – they could continue to gather their crops long after the sun had set.”

The Full Buck Moon corresponds to the time of year when young deer begin to sprout horns. Then there’s the Strawberry Moon, the Sturgeon Moon, the Hunter’s Moon – the list goes on.

Other terms, such as the Blue Moon and the Black Moon, have been used for only three or four years in this context. These colloquial names held no astronomical or practical weight, but media outlets soon found that they were good for page views.

“[Supermoon] never was a science phrase,” astronomer Bob Berman tells the Monitor in a phone interview.  “Unfortunately, the hype got out of hand. Now it’s not just the closest moon of the year, but the three or four closest, or even any moon slightly larger than average.”

Until recently, there were only two full moon names actually used by astronomers: the Harvest Moon and the Hunter’s Moon. The rest are mostly Native American in origin, and different tribes had different names for each moon.

“We’ll just pick one of the many names, just because we think it sounds cool,” admits Dr. Berman, who is also astronomy editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. “There’s a certain kind of fake hype surrounding these monthly moons.”

But what makes us devour these articles? The fascination may go back “long before there were any written documents,” Mr. Brunner says. Bits of lunar symbolism, such as the changing phases, are deeply ingrained in many cultures and religions.

“People bond with the moon,” Berman says. “There’s lots of lore, and sometimes it’s the only thing they can recognize. Even the brightest stars, nobody wants to be bothered with charts.”

Hype aside, will there really be anything super to see on Sunday night? Probably not, unless you have superhuman eyesight.

“If you go out and look at it, no human eye can see the difference,” Berman says. “It’s still a very unusually close moon, but the eye can’t see 8 percent larger.”

Luckily, there is a way to “cheat” the moon into looking bigger, Berman adds.

“The moon illusion is a psychological effect that makes the moon look much larger when its rising against objects on the horizon. Next to treetops, or a building, or church steeples, any moon would look big.”

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