Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why We Would Miss the Moon if it Blew Up

The Moon: if it disappeared, we'd miss it in a hurry!

This week, with the focus being on the upcoming 'supermoon,' why not take a look at why the Moon matters to us here on Earth and why, contrary to the 'who cares?' attitude expressed at the thought of blowing Luna to smithereens in the second Austin Powers movie, we should care if the Moon were to suddenly vanish from our sky. .

On the surface of the issue, the Moon seems very distant and unimportant. Yes, it lights the sky for us on some nights but, being the advanced civilization we are, we no longer depend on the Moon as a timekeeping device or extra source of light during the fall harvest season. In fact, many amateur astronomers (and especially astrophotographers) consider the bright Moon to be a real pain in the neck. However, as detached or as hostile to the Moon as we may be, there would be plenty of consequences that would lead people all over the world to start missing the Moon if it were to disappear, and miss it in a hurry, too.

First up, the tides would stop. The ocean's daily tides are caused by the Moon's gravity tugging on the Earth. Every day on the side of the Earth facing the Moon, the tide recedes as the Earth is slightly pulled toward the Moon while the water remains in place, thus, sea levels drop. On the opposite side of the Earth, the water still stays put but it appears to rise as the Earth is pulled away in the opposite direction. Either way, should the tides stop, people will be unhappy with where the water settles.

On a much more global scale, the seasons would be impacted, big time. Right now, the Earth goes through a 26,000 year cycle in which the planet wobbles as though it were a giant top about to stop spinning. This cycle is called precession of the equinoxes. To visualize, go out tonight and find the Little Dipper, specifically the North Star, Polaris. Now, look into the Western sky to find Vega, the brightest star in the Summer Triangle. In about 13,000 years from now, Vega, as seen from Earth, will be located very near where Polaris is situated today. Obviously, such a wobble of the Earth, and thus, its inclination to the Sun, will have an impact on climate, albeit a slow one that is imperceptible over the course of a human lifetime.

Yes, the Earth wobbles, but the Moon acts as a break, its gravitational tug keeping the Earth on this slow, regular, 26,000 year cycle. Take the Moon away and the situation would change. With no satellite to act as a gravitational chain, the Earth could begin to tumble wildly in space. The inclination, and therefore climate, could change dramatically within the average person's lifetime. In fact, it would not be unrealistic to go from an ice age to a tropical climate in a few thousand years, and then, potentially right back again. Needless to say, such huge climatic shifts in such a short time would doom many species to extinction as they, unlike humans, could not readily adapt to the changing weather patterns. Oh yes, humans would be indirectly impacted too as the impact on farming would be huge.

Last but not least, eclipses, both solar and lunar, would be a thing of the past as, obviously, no Moon means no eclipse. Both types of eclipses are among those rare opportunities where the public as a whole and not just astronomers take notice of the night sky. As a result, a lot less people would find anything of interest in the night sky.

So yes, if the Moon were to suddenly disappear, we humans would be missing it in a hurry!

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