Tonight’s Full Wolf Moon Makes For Happy Howlers

Last night’s moon paints the bare trees with light. Tonight the moon will be full. Photo: Bob King

Tonight Jan. 26 the Full Wolf Moon will crest the horizon around sunset and appear high in the southern sky in the constellation Cancer around midnight. If you want to know exactly when the moon will rise for your location, click HERE and select your city.

January’s full moon is named for the wolves that are active this time of year hunting and looking for mates. Wolves howl for many reasons including to let the pack know their location, as a rallying cry to gather the pack together and to warn other wolf packs to keep off their territory.

A wolf points its face nearly straight up when howling so its voice can carry over a long distance.

We’ve come to associate wolf howling with the full moon but studies have shown there’s no direct connection between the phase of the moon and howling. Maybe it’s the way they point their muzzles to the moon and stars that makes us think they’re directing their calls to the sky. Wolves are just taking advantage of good acoustics. If you point your face upward and howl, your voice will carry much farther. Wolf howls can travel up to 6 miles in the forest and 10 miles across open terrain.

I said there was no direct link between full moon and howling frequency, but a bright moon makes hunting at night easier by providing a brighter light than say, a crescent moon. So yes, when wolves are actively hunting and howling, we might hear them more often during near-full or full moons.

I don’t know if it’s hidden in our DNA, but I’ve known lots of people over the years who’ve attempted to communicate with wolves – or get their dogs stoked up – by imitating a wolf howl. If you’ve ever wanted to howl but needed a few tips, I recommend this humorous 2-minute video.

The full moon lies directly opposite the sun in the sky. When the sun sets at our backs, the moon rises in our face in the eastern sky. Sunlight strikes the moon square-on at full phase, illuminating the entire disk. Photo: Bob King

The full moon will be spectacularly bright as always. Outside of the sun, it’s the brightest celestial object in the sky. Funny though. Astronomers have measured the light reflected by the moon and found it’s a near perfect match to the a freshly-paved asphalt parking lot.

It appears bright compared to the darkness of the sky. Our eyes also become more sensitive to dim light at night, contributing to the impression of the moon’s brilliance.  Like other animals including wolves, we’re equipped with night-vision “goggles” in the form of some 120 million “rod” cells in our eyes. They’re far more numerous and much more sensitive than the “cones” we use for daytime vision.

The moment of full moon – when the moon is directly opposite the sun – happens at 10:38 p.m. (CST) tonight. That’s when the entire half of the moon facing Earth will be flooded with light. The shadows of mountains and craters that characterize the moon during its other phases will be absent … or nearly so. Ironically, a completely shadowless moon is only possible when the moon is exactly opposite the sun, at which time it moves into Earth’s shadow during a total lunar eclipse.

If the moon’s orbit wasn’t tilted with respect to Earth’s, we have a total lunar eclipse every month. Because it is, the moon “misses” our planet’s shadow most months. The imperfect lineup during tonight’s full moon is visible as a faint shading along the moon’s northern limb or edge. Look for crater and mountain shadows there through a telescope. Diagram not to scale. Illustration: Bob King

Because the moon’s orbit is tilted about 5 degrees with respect to Earth, it usually passes north or south of this ideal sun-Earth-moon line. Tonight it will be a full 5 degrees south of  that line at the moment of full moon. If you have a small telescope, look at the moon around that time. You’ll notice shadows of mountain walls and craters within its northern limb or edge. Oh, and don’t forget to let out a howl of delight when you do.

If you’re looking to enhance your full moon experience, check out my 10 Ways to Enjoy a full moon.

16 Responses

  1. Joan Barker

    My brothers and I used to do this at the zoo. We could get the coyotes, wolves and even the lions going. What a power trip. This was back in the 40s when all the animals were in small cages. Now they are all in large habitats — probably wouldn’t work any more.

  2. Edward M. Boll

    With Comet Lemmon and Panstaars, let us not forget Comet Bressi. When still out over 1 AU from the Sun, it was mv 10.8. Getting nearly 4 times closer could brighten it up 7 magnitudes, being optimistic here. We at 45 degrees north could see it in binoculars less than 2 weeks afterward

    1. astrobob

      It’s important to remember that T5 Bressi may brighten to that magnitude but it will be much too close to the sun to see at the time (early to mid-March). As I wrote earlier, by the time it emerges into a reasonably dark sky, the comet will almost certainly require a telescope.

  3. Barrett Coleman

    Did anyone see something/anything (possibly a satelite) pass in front of the moon tonight? It sort of looked like a black streak entering at around 5 o’clock headed towards noon…..have you not had any reports of sighting of anything passing in front of and in between earth and the moon tonight something happened tonight…..i know more ppl saw ths….maybe someone has a video?

    1. astrobob

      No predictions of anything special passing between moon and Earth tonight. Even the largest satellite – the space station – would not be visible with the naked eye passing in front of the moon.

    2. Sheila

      January 26, 2013 about 11:30 PM Central time, the full moon was directly overhead. It appearred to be inside a huge circle. It looked like a ball that had been dropped in the middle of a large lake. It looked very strange. I have never seen anything like it.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Barbara,
      There sure are. The best time to see the moon in the daylight is during the fall, when it’s high in the southwestern sky in the morning hours. As you get more familiar with its path and how it moves, you’ll discover you can see it during many other times of year, too.

  4. Wayne Hawk

    Aloha Astro Bob!

    I have a feeling that a lot of people aren’t used to seeing the moon during the day and when it happens, may think something isn’t right in the universe! The 1st time I saw it during the day (that I remember) I was in 4th/5th grade and because of the odd/strange (maybe even a little frightened) feeling I got, is the reason I remember the moment.

    Watching during the daytime, I can’t help but wonder what our early ancestors must have had going through their minds…did they think of it as a “ball” or “flat disk” shape? Could they even grasp that it was something similar to earth but without life? Perhaps some thought of it as only a source of light during the dark nights and wondered what good it was during the day?!? Of course now, it seems so obvious what it is and how it possibly came to be and why it has its differing phases (what they must have thought of THOSE!).

    The moon seems to be a thing of fascination for humans no matter how much we seem to “know” about it. Just a couple of days ago while waiting for my wife to come out of a grocery store, I sat on the tailgate of our truck and stared at it for a good 5 minutes in complete awe and wonder. If educated humans like us still do that, can you imagine what early humans who didn’t even know the earth was a round/oval planet must have imagined? I’d give my left…uh, … arm to know!

    1. astrobob

      Nice reflections about the moon. From what I’ve learned, the sun and moon were gods to ancient peoples. Their lives and relationships were the basis of the great myths. The moon’s phases were a metaphor for birth, death and re-birth. It seems they weren’t concerned with the physical thing itself as our civilization is. There was no way they could know, and yet you wonder if there weren’t minds out there who wondered all the same.

  5. Lynn

    Thanks Bob, I was pleased with myself that I got that right, but the teaching came from you as you have told us about the halo in many of your blogs, see I take in every word you say 🙂

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