5Ws+1H: What It's About: Moon cycles symptoms of alignments

Jan. 24—While moon cycles may seem unimportant to some, the natural phenomena can offer a look back in time.

"Our natural world has many wonders to behold," said Deborah Hyde, an instructor of natural science at Northeastern State University. "It is comforting to identify the natural cycles that have continued from long before our time. We are looking at the same moon as [Copernicus] or Galileo."

Hyde said phases of the moon mark where it is illuminated and has shadows cast on its surface, depending on the order of the alignment of the sun, Earth, and moon.

While the term "moon phase" is the most commonly used term, "moon cycle" can also refer to the same occurrence. Moon cycles are seen as symptoms of the alignments, which can impact ocean tides.

"Full and new moon phases occur when all three things are aligned and therefore the high tides are higher," said Hyde. "That is known as spring tides. When the moon phase is at first or third quarter, the moon is at right angles to the sun and Earth so the tides aren't as high. That arrangement is known as neap tide."

Hyde said several sources can help identify what phase the moon is in, such as going to Sciencenotes.org. Different phases include a full moon, waning or waxing crescent, waxing or waning gibbous, third quarter, etc.

Due to the terminology of "waxing" in the illuminated section of moon phases, Hyde said it can often cause confusion because some use the term for a hair removal treatment instead of something becoming larger.

"[Further] back in history, many people used candles to light their homes," said Hyde. "When you make candles you dip string wicks into melted wax. Let it dry. Then dip the candles again and again and the candle gets bigger. So back when they named the phases of the moon, waxing meant getting bigger."

By looking at the side of a partially illuminated moon, Hyde said individuals can determine if the moon is waxing or waning. She remembers it by thinking of the letters "C" and "D."

If the moon resembles the capital letter "C," she thinks of the phrase, "See you later," as it is "leaving" or getting smaller. Hyde said she is reminded of the capital letter "D" when the right side of the moon is illuminated, which she associates with the phrase, "Dang. That waxing hurts."

While a phase can essentially show the moon as getting bigger or smaller, an optical illusion can make it seem larger, as well. "Moon illusion" can take place where the moon appears to be larger when it is near the horizon rather than when it is higher in the sky.

"This effect is caused by light refracting through a thicker atmosphere close to the Earth's surface when viewed from that nearly horizontal angle. This creates an optical illusion," said Hyde. "Of course, the moon does not change sizes from big at the horizon to smaller high in the sky, it just looks that way with our brains playing tricks on us from the refracted light."