The Harvest Moon

By: Alyssa Schauer

September 24, 2018

Category: Nature Notes

As a kid, I spent many summer evenings barefoot in the backyard, staring up at the night sky in deep fascination. I would lay in the freshly-mowed grass, arms behind my head, and I'd locate The Big Dipper and Orion's Belt. I marveled at the luminous moon high up over the rolling hills of cornfields around me and I would eagerly wait for sparkling shooting stars to blaze above so I could make a few wishes before bed.

I loved to read stories about the magic of the night sky, about how sailors used the stars to navigate and how Greek gods and beasts were immortalized in constellations. I learned about the legends of ancient tribes and how they lived according to the lunar calendar.

In North America, many indigenous tribes observed seasons by giving distinct names to each recurring full moon. Several of their traditional names, like Pink Moon, Strawberry Moon and Beaver Moon, are still used today in The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Tonight's moon is the Harvest Moon, which according to The Almanac, is the full moon closest to the start of the autumnal equinox that marks the beginning of fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

Why Is It Called the Harvest Moon?

In the fall for many nights, the moon rises soon after sunset, which creates “an abundance of bright moonlight early in the evening,” states The Almanac. In the days before electricity, this abundance of moonlight gave farmers and crews more "daylight" to harvest summer crops.

How Is the Harvest Moon Different from Other Full Moons?

The moon rises an average of 50 minutes later each day throughout the year. However, near the fall equinox the moon follows an orbital path closer to the horizon in the Northern Hemisphere, causing it to rise only 20-25 minutes later from night to night, explains The Almanac.

Because it follows an orbital path closer to the horizon, the Harvest Moon often “appear[s] larger to observers near the horizon than it does high in the sky,” according to Space.com, which is sometimes discussed as “the moon illusion.”

The moon illusion can be explained as a mind trick. Our minds and eyes are used to seeing distant clouds that appear smaller on the horizon and closer clouds that appear larger just a few miles overhead. Since the Harvest Moon rises on the horizon, our eyes think it is further away and should be smaller, but since its distance to us doesn’t actually change, it appears larger instead.

image demonstrating the moon illusion
Photo Credit: Damianadrian via Wikimedia Commons

Another unique trait of the full Harvest Moon is that it rises at sunset and continues to rise near sunset for several nights in a row. This explains why it seems there are full moons multiple nights in a row.

Why Does the Moon Appear Orange Sometimes?

red-hued moon
Photo credit: Andrea Breitung

NASA explains that low-hanging moons over the horizon are reddened by clouds and dust in the earth’s atmosphere.

When Is the Harvest Moon?

In 2018, the Harvest Moon will rise on Monday, September 24. For more information about moons, the lunar calendar and folklore, check out almanac.com and nasa.gov.

Want to get out in the parks and celebrate the Harvest Moon? Register today for a Harvest Moon program near you and discover the beauty of the parks at night.

About the Author

a smiling woman wearing a straw hat

Alyssa Schauer is part of the marketing team at Three Rivers. She earned her Bachelor's degree in poetry writing and communications at Winona State University and formerly worked as a journalist at a small-town newspaper. After college, she volunteered with the Minnesota Conservation Corps to clear and maintain trails in Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters. Outside of work, she spends time in the woods looking at everything up close (especially ferns and spiders), writing poems about nature, canoeing with her husband, planning Halloween costumes year-round, playing Nintendo and raising a pride of four naughty (but cute!) cats.

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