Eyes to the sky tonight to see the Full Wolf Moon — 2023's first Full Moon of the year.
Whatever you are up to, if you have reasonably clear skies tonight, pause for a moment or two and take in the splendour of the Moon. Rising just before sunset, the Moon reaches its Full phase for the month at 6:10 p.m. EST. However, the Wolf Moon will appear Full all night long, and possibly well into Saturday night as well.
So, there's plenty of time to check it out.
What is a Wolf Moon?
Each Full Moon of the year has one or more names associated with it, made popular by the various Farmers' Almanacs that are published over the years. These names are a mix of First Nations, Colonial, and European folklore.
For the first Full Moon of the year, the Old Farmer's Almanac lists several different names. 'Wolf Moon' is the one used most often.
As the Almanac says: "The howling of wolves was often heard at this time of year. It was traditionally thought that wolves howled due to hunger, but we now know that wolves use howls to define territory, locate pack members, reinforce social bonds, and gather for hunting."
The 13 Full Moons of 2023 are detailed here, including their popular names, whether they are a 'super' or 'micro' Moon, a perigee or apogee Full Moon, as well as other remarkable info, such as the Harvest Moon and lunar eclipses. Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Scott Sutherland
The Almanac's list of names for the January Full Moon also includes Center Moon, Cold Moon, Greetings Moon, Hard Moon, Severe Moon, and Spirit Moon.
What is a 'Micromoon'?
Most of us know about supermoons. These occur when the Full Moon is near or at its closest distance to Earth, and thus appears bigger and brighter than usual. However, we don't often hear about 'micromoons'.
The Moon's orbit around Earth isn't a perfect circle. Instead, its path traces out an ellipse. So, for half its orbit it is closer than average, and for the other half it is farther than average. This results in two points of each orbit where the Moon is at its closest to Earth (perigee) and its farthest from Earth (apogee).
The positions of the Moon in orbit around Earth during the Full Wolf Moon on Jan. 6, when it reaches apogee on Jan. 8, and during the Perigee New Moon on Jan. 21. Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Scott Sutherland
A supermoon is when the Full Moon is timed for when the Moon is close to or at perigee for the month. Since it's closer to us, it appears larger and brighter in the sky. Micromoons are the opposite of this. They occur when the Full Moon is close to or at apogee. Being farther away, that makes the Full Moon appear smaller and dimmer than usual.
Tonight's Full Wolf Moon is 405,786 km away, and occurs a little more than a day before the Moon reaches apogee (on the morning of Jan. 8, at a distance of 406,458 km). That makes this a micromoon.
These supermoon and micromoon definitions also apply to New Moons. Note in the graphic above that there's more than a day between Full Moon and apogee, but later this month, the Moon's perigee coincides exactly with the New Moon. We won't see it, of course, but this will be 2023's Perigee Super New Moon — the closest New Moon of the entire year.
THE MOON ILLUSION
Even though this Full Wolf Moon is one of the smallest Full Moon of the year, if you're seeing it just after it rises or shortly before it sets, you may not register that fact to start. This is due to a little trick of the mind known as The Moon Illusion.
The human brain gauges the size and distance of objects by comparing them to other things directly around them. The Moon technically doesn't have anything directly around it, at least not that we can perceive with the naked eye. However, our brains still try to put the Moon into perspective by comparing it to objects in the foreground of our field of view — trees, buildings, etc. As it tries to fit the Moon into that context, the brain interprets it as being much larger than it truly is.
This Full Moon rose over Calgary, AB, on September 13, 2019. Credit: Siv Heang
This illusion is so deeply ingrained into our brain that it's a real challenge to see past it. Even if you know that it's just a trick, it often doesn't matter. You will still see the Moon as being bigger than it really is.
We have a couple of tricks of our own you can try, though, which may cancel out the illusion (at least temporarily).
First, when observing the Moon early in the evening, when it is near the horizon, stretch out your arm in front of you, close one eye, and cover over the Moon's face with the tip of a finger or thumb. Try to pick a digit that most closely matches the size of the Moon. Later on, when the Moon is higher in the sky and appears smaller, repeat this process using the same finger or thumb. Again, it should appear exactly the same size compared to that digit, revealing that, even as it looked larger earlier and smaller now, it's actually the same size at both times.
The second trick relies upon technology. While the Moon is near the horizon, looking huge to the naked eye, take out your cellphone, open up your camera app, and look at the Moon on the screen. Comparing what you see directly with how it appears on the small screen often cancels the illusion. However, if you snap some pictures and then look at them later (especially if you transfer them to a larger computer screen), the Moon will probably appear bigger again. That's how powerful the Moon illusion is!
If you do take pictures, why not load them up into our UGC gallery, so the rest of us can see them, too?