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What is a Full Moon?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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When the Moon appears perfectly round in the sky, it is known as a “full moon,” indicating that the disc of the Moon is full or complete. This happen on average every 29 days, and advances in astronomy have allowed scientists to carefully predict their patterns. Many traditions and superstitions are associated with the full moon in almost every culture on Earth, especially when the moon becomes eclipsed, as will happen periodically.

The Moon appears to change shape because its orbit around the Earth, and through the Earth's orbit around the Sun. As the Moon moves behind the Earth, so that the planet is between it and the sun, more and more of the Moon will appear illuminated in a cycle called "waxing." When the Moon is all the way behind the Earth, the Sun's light will completely illuminate the visible side of the moon, making it look like a large, white disc in the sky. As the Moon moves around to the front of the Earth again, the visible disc shrinks, in a process referred to as "waning," until the it appears totally dark because the illuminated portion faces away from Earth.

Although the Moon generally takes a little over 27 days to completely orbit the Earth, it takes another few days for the Earth, moon, and sun to be in the proper alignment to create a full moon. As a result, the lunar cycle takes around 29 days in total. Since this cycle is such a present and obvious part of life, it lent its name to the word "month," which is derived from "moon."

Occasionally, two full moons will appear in the same calendar month. The second is known as a "blue moon," and it is relatively uncommon. Some people consider blue moons to be highly auspicious, because of their rarity. More rarely, the month of February will have no full moon, since it is usually only 28 days long. When this happens, January or March will be marked with a blue moon. The Moon is also periodically eclipsed, thanks to its position behind the Earth. When the three planetary bodies reach the perfect alignment, the Earth's shadow will cover the Moon partially or totally.

The appearance of the Moon from Earth is referred to as a "lunar phase," reflecting the cyclical nature of the moon's appearance. Many cultures have historically tracked lunar phases, and associated certain superstitions and beliefs to them. The new moon, for example, is often linked with crime and questionable activity, since the night is dark, allowing people to participate in activities without detection. The full moon, on the other hand, has been associated with insanity, although studies have suggested that the Moon does not have influence on human or animal behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a full moon?

A full moon occurs when the Earth is directly between the sun and the moon, allowing the sun's light to fully illuminate the moon's surface. This phase happens approximately every 29.5 days, marking one complete lunar cycle. During this time, the moon appears as a perfect circular disk in the sky.

How does a full moon affect Earth's tides?

During a full moon, the gravitational pull of the moon and sun are combined, leading to higher-than-average ocean tides known as spring tides. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, these tides can be significantly more pronounced, depending on the alignment and distance of the moon relative to Earth.

Can a full moon influence human behavior or health?

Despite popular myths, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that a full moon directly influences human behavior or health. Studies have debunked the notion of 'lunacy' linked to the lunar cycle, suggesting that any perceived changes are likely due to confirmation bias or cultural folklore.

What are some cultural significances of a full moon?

Full moons hold significant cultural importance across various societies. For instance, many Native American tribes named full moons to track seasons, with names like 'Harvest Moon' or 'Wolf Moon.' In Eastern cultures, festivals like the Mid-Autumn Festival are celebrated during the full moon, symbolizing prosperity and family reunion.

Is it possible to predict when the next full moon will occur?

Yes, the occurrence of full moons can be predicted with great accuracy. Astronomers use lunar calendars to calculate future full moon phases. These predictions are essential for planning astronomical events, cultural festivals, and even certain agricultural activities that are traditionally tied to the lunar cycle.

Are full moons brighter than other phases of the moon?

Full moons are indeed brighter than other lunar phases because we see the entire face of the moon illuminated by the sun. The full moon's brightness can vary slightly each month due to the moon's elliptical orbit, with the brightest being the 'supermoon,' when the full moon is at its closest point to Earth.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By orangey03 — On Sep 06, 2012

@Mykol – That sounds like a fun full moon ritual. I guess you really wouldn't need to string lights out in the yard for a cookout on such a bright night, because everyone would be able to see each other fairly well.

I have something that I do every time there is a full moon. I take a drive on this nearby highway that borders the coast. I roll the windows down and take in the ocean breeze.

I stop at my favorite beach and get out to watch the moonlight reflecting on the waves. It is truly beautiful.

By wavy58 — On Sep 05, 2012

@golf07 – I have noticed that dogs act differently when there is a full moon out. For one thing, they tend to bark a lot more.

Maybe it's because they can see further in the bright light. However, they can see pretty well at night without the moon, so it must be something more.

The coyotes out in the woods howl a lot when there is a full moon. This gets every dog in the neighborhood howling. So, I don't get much sleep on nights with a full moon.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 04, 2012

Full moons are freakishly bright. I've often said that they are like giant natural streetlights, because they illuminate the world about as much as one streetlight would illuminate a yard.

I love sitting outside on a night with a full moon. It makes everything look blue. It gives me a neat perspective on what the world would look like if everything were the same color.

By healthy4life — On Sep 04, 2012

@anon160420 – The reason that the Earth doesn't block the sunlight from the moon is that the moon's orbit is offset from that of the Earth around the sun. So, light can get on through to the moon.

When lunar and solar eclipses occur, this is because the orbits have lined up perfectly. So, the light is blocked out then.

By golf07 — On Aug 30, 2012

This article states that studies have shown that a full moon doesn't really affect human behavior, but I think my son would disagree with that statement.

He works in the psychiatric ward of a hospital and many times the staff will make a comment about it being a full moon because the patients are exhibiting such strange behavior.

I have also heard people say the emergency rooms at hospitals are often crazier than normal if there is a full moon.

It seems to happen often enough that it makes you wonder if a full moon really does have some kind of effect on human behavior.

By honeybees — On Aug 30, 2012

I don't pay that much attention to the cycle of the moon, but still see when a full moon is because it is written down on almost every calendar I have.

I had never thought about the fact that the month of February doesn't have a full moon because it is such a short month. I think I will start paying closer attention to this, and see if I can identify the blue moon in January or March next time this rolls around.

By Mykol — On Aug 29, 2012

We have some friends who live in the country and have a full moon party every month. It doesn't matter what day of the week this falls on, all of their friends and neighbors know they will have a party on that particular day. If someone enjoys throwing parties, a full moon party is as good excuse as any.

It is a good time to get together with good food and good conversation. They have done this so long that most people don't actually pay that much attention to what the moon looks like.

There are some nights though when it is hard to ignore because it is such a bright spot in the sky.

By anon160420 — On Mar 15, 2011

But won't the earth's shadow block the light from the sun?

By carpusdiem — On Jul 21, 2009

for ocicats, 40 years ago, man walked on the moon.

By ocicats — On Jul 21, 2009

I was asked when the last whole or complete Full Moon was...the hint was '40 years is a long time'.

By carpusdiem — On Jun 15, 2009

Your welcome! All the Full Moons listed for 2008 are from Algonquin/Colonial. There are different names for different cultures such as, English/Medieval, Neo-pagan, Celtic. For example, Harvest Moon has other names such as Corn Moon, Fruit Moon, Nut Moon, Barley Moon, Blood Moon.

By jccarney — On Jun 15, 2009

*Thanks* for posting the names of all the full moons. Your post said "for 2008"...do they change each year? Do the names change, or do they change which month they correspond with? I knew about blue moons, but have always been fascinated with the old names of each moon/month, would love to know where they originated. If you have a suggested reference, I would like to know it.

By anon33933 — On Jun 14, 2009

Full Moon names for 2008. Jan. Full Wolf Moon. Feb, Full Snow Moon. Mar, Full Worm Moon. Apr, Full Pink Moon. May Full Flower Moon. Jun, Full Strawberry Moon. July Full Buck Moon. Aug, Full Sturgeon Moon. Sept, Full Harvest Moon. Oct, Full Hunters Moon. Nov, Full Beaver Moon. Dec. Full Cold Moon.

By jccarney — On Jun 14, 2009

wish you would list the names of the full moons for the whole year, as in Harvest Moon, Hunter's Moon, etc.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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