Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

August 4, 2012

Blue Moon rising: Understanding the rarity of a two-full-moon month

GARDNER — Jerry Belcher, a longtime Mercer County farmer, said he had heard of a blue moon, but he didn’t attach any agricultural significance to it.

“They must be rare,” he said as he visited with Appalachian Wood Carvers at the Mercer County Fair. “I’ve heard the song, but I don’t know any tales associated with a blue moon.”

The concept of a blue moon isn’t rooted in long-standing astrological observations, but may have its origins in the challenge of fitting irregular time patterns into an orderly calendar. Historically, dust particles from large volcanic eruptions on earth including the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, Krakatoa in 1883, or even large forest fires can cause a blue tint around the moon due to dust particles floating in the atmosphere.

Events that cause atmospheric distortions can be irregular and rare, and references to the rarity of a blue moon exist in early 16th century English language publications, although the expression probably predates that time.

In popular modern culture, the 1933 song, “Blue Moon,” by Richard Rogers and Lorenze Hart, was a huge hit in the 1930s and after it was first recorded by the Boswell Sisters in 1935, the song was re-recorded by many other artists including Mel Tormé in 1949 and Elvis Presley in 1956.

By 1937, the Maine Farmers’ Almanac included rules listing 11 months with one moon and one month with two moons. However, earlier editions of the publication from 1819 to 1962 list about 12 blue moons with none of them being the second moon in the month, according to information compiled for two separate Sky & Telescope magazine articles that were published in the 1940s.

The modern definition of blue moon gets more complex with each new layer. The almanac bases its calendar based on a winter-solstice to winter-solstice period, but incorporates some rules that were established in the 1582 Gregorian calendar reforms, according to information online provided on the SkyandTelescope.com website. Each month has a corresponding moon including the Lenten Moon, the Egg Moon at Easter, but the Blue Moon is the second full moon in the same month.

The publication, Sky & Telescope ultimately defined a blue moon as the second full moon in a calendar month in 1943. A later Sky & Telescope article further confused the issue, but by that time, the idea had become so deeply entrenched that it was there to stay.

Based on the two full moons per calendar month rule, the first full moon this month came on Aug. 2, and the second is due to arrive on Aug. 31. August 2012 is the only month with a blue moon this year, but there were two blue moons in one calendar year as recently as 1999, with the first in January and the second in March with no full moon in February 1999. The next year with double blue moons will be 2018 according to earthsky.org.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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