Saturday, August 1, 2015
Friday, July 31, 2015
A blue moon is an additional full moon that appears in a subdivision of a year: either the third of four full moons in a season, or a second full moon in a month of the common calendar. The phrase has nothing to do with the actual color of the moon, although a literal "blue moon" (the moon appearing with a tinge of blue) may occur in certain atmospheric conditions: e.g., when there are volcanic eruptions or when exceptionally large fires leave particles in the atmosphere.
The term has traditionally referred to an "extra" moon, where a year which normally has 12 moons has 13 instead. The "blue moon" reference is applied to the third moon in a season with four moons, thus correcting the timing of the last month of a season that would have otherwise been expected too early. This happens every two to three years (seven times in the Metonic cycle of 19 years). The March 1946 issue of Sky & Telescope misinterpreted the traditional definition, which led to the modern colloquial misunderstanding that a blue moon is a second full moon in a single solar calendar month with no seasonal link.
One lunation (an average lunar cycle) is 29.53 days. There are about 365.24 days in a tropical year. Therefore, about 12.37 lunations (365.24 days divided by 29.53 days) occur in a tropical year. In the widely used Gregorian calendar, there are 12 months (the word month is derived from moon) in a year, and normally there is one full moon each month. Each calendar year contains roughly 11 days more than the number of days in 12 lunar cycles. The extra days accumulate, so every two or three years (seven times in the 19-year Metonic cycle), there is an extra full moon. The extra moon necessarily falls in one of the four seasons, giving that season four full moons instead of the usual three, and, hence, a blue moon.
The suggestion has been made that the term "blue moon" for "intercalary month" arose by folk etymology, the "blue" replacing the no-longer-understood belewe, 'to betray'. The original meaning would then have been "betrayer moon", referring to a full moon that would "normally" (in years without an intercalary month) be the full moon of spring, while in an intercalary year, it was "traitorous" in the sense that people would have had to continue fasting for another month in accordance with the season of Lent.
The March 1946 Sky and Telescope article "Once in a Blue Moon" by James Hugh Pruett misinterpreted the 1937 Maine Farmers' Almanac. "Seven times in 19 years there were – and still are – 13 full moons in a year. This gives 11 months with one full moon each and one with two. This second in a month, so I interpret it, was called Blue Moon." Widespread adoption of the definition of a "blue moon" as the second full moon in a month followed its use on the popular radio program StarDate on January 31, 1980 and in a question in the Trivial Pursuit game in 1986.
The most literal meaning of blue moon is when the moon (not necessarily a full moon) appears to a casual observer to be unusually bluish, which is a rare event. The effect can be caused by smoke or dust particles in the atmosphere, as has happened after forest fires in Sweden and Canada in 1950 and 1951, and after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which caused the moon to appear blue for nearly two years. Other less potent volcanoes have also turned the moon blue. People saw blue moons in 1983 after the eruption of the El Chichón volcano in Mexico, and there are reports of blue moons caused by Mount St. Helens in 1980 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991. In the Antarctic diary of Robert Falcon Scott for July 11, 1911 his entry says, "...the air thick with snow, and the moon a vague blue." On that date the moon phase would have looked full.