A Rare August Blue Moon Lights the Skies Over Chicago

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

The third of four moons of the summer season, a blue moon, shows big and bright over Lake Michigan.

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Blue Moon seen from Jarvis Beach in the Rogers Park neighborhood of ChicagoAuthor

This weekend, people all over Chicago are coming out to the lake to catch 2021’s only blue moon. There are two types of blue moons. The first and more common type is when there are two full moons in a single month. When this occurs, the second one is referred to as a blue moon. In the second case, when there are four full moons in a calendar season which has three months and normally three full moons, the third full moon is called a blue moon. The seasonal full moon is a rarer event as it only occurs once every two to the three years.

This weekend’s full moon is of the second variety. Already a rare event, this August’s Blue Moon is even more unusual in that it will be at almost peak illumination from Friday night through Monday with its brightest illumination falling Sunday night.

When August’s full moon is not a seasonal Blue Moon, it is also called the Full Sturgeon Moon referring to the large fish the Algonquin tribe caught in the Great Lakes during this season. It’s also known as the full red moon due to the color it often takes on during this month as a function of the heat, humidity, haze and low altitude which cause it to take on a reddish hue. Other names for the August full moon are the Green Corn Moon referring to the time when Native Americans’ corn was fully grown but not yet ready for harvest and the Full Grain Moon because it occurred at the time of the annual harvest of wild grains according to the Farmer's Almanac.

This month I set out to photograph the full moon in from several Rogers Park beaches in particular from the pier jutting out from Loyola Beach where the old lighthouse sits and moving south from there.

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Blue Moon seen from the lighthouse at Loyola Beach in the Rogers Park neighborhood of ChicagoAuthor

While the name "blue moon" is given to the rare occurrence of either an extra moon in a month or the even rarer occurrence of an extra moon in a season, the moon almost never appears blue. It can however, if "volcanic eruptions or forest fires send lots of smoke and fine dust into the atmosphere," according to Sky & Telescope.

This may be where the phrase "once in a blue moon" comes from, used to denote something of extreme rarity. If a seasonal full moon occurs only once in every 2.7 years, and to appear blue there must be "particulate matter of the right size is suspended in the atmosphere and interacts with light reflecting off the moon," then clearly that would be rare indeed. So, if you are interested in seeing a full moon that is actually blue in color you'll have to be patient, and wait around for a massive volcanic explosion to occur at the right time.

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Blue Moon seen from North Shore Beach in the Rogers Park Neighborhood of ChicagoAuthor

It was very hot in Chicago today, and the unusual lake effects of Lake Michigan can do strange things to the temperature in the area. For one, the actual temperature means very little as 50 degrees can feel like 30 degrees or 70 degrees or anywhere in between. After moving here, you quickly learn to not listen to the news to determine how to dress for the day but to actually step outside to see for yourself what the weather is like.

The other unusual thing that happens here is that while in most places it gets cooler at night in the summer, in Chicago it often gets hotter. I noticed this my first summer after moving to Rogers Park as I didn't have air conditioning. I would sweat through the day waiting for nightfall and cooler temperature when I could open my windows. To my dismay, I would open the windows only to feel hot air blow in. Going outside I could quickly tell the temperature had risen, not fallen.

Thinking I was imagining this, I asked friends who quickly affirmed my impression. No one had an explanation for it other than falling back on the often used excuse of "lake effects." Still wondering whether this was an urban myth, I bought an a thermometer which I mounted outside my window. Over the course of 38 days in July and August, on all but 4, the temperatures did, in fact, go up at night. Today the thermometer read 87 degrees and when coming back tonight at around 10:00pm it read 91.

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Blue Moon seen from Hartigan Beach in the Rogers Park Neighborhood of Chicagoauthor

On the walk to take photos tonight I noticed that the moon was much brighter than it was during the full moon last night. I also noticed a difference in demeanor in the folks out moon gazing. There seemed to be even more, a lot more, than there were last month and those that were out seemed to be full of energy. Where as last month things seemed peaceful and calm, this month there was music coming from every direction, people dancing, and many people in the water swimming - not just wading but actually swimming out into the lake.

I asked some folks why they thought there were so many people out and why everyone seemed to joyous this month and got a range of answers. The most common one that also seemed the most plausible was that last month while COVID numbers had begun to climb again there was still hope they'd quickly level off and decrease. This full moon, another month had gone by, and with the mask mandate, warnings about the Delta variant and rapidly increasing cases with increases in the number of people in the hospital and those who had died, people could see the writing on the wall. Residents of Chicago fear that this trend will continue until fall when further restrictions and possibly another lockdown could occur.

For those I spoke with, this full moon seemed like the last hurrah for low restrictions and being able to interact with friends and neighbors outside without masks or social distancing before the next shutdown happens and we are once again largely stuck in our homes without the ability to socialize the way we want to.

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Blue Moon seen from Toby Prinz Beach in the Rogers Park Neighborhood of ChicagoAuthor

Although I intended to work some more tonight, thinking about what those I talked to said, when I arrived home, I went to the beach behind my house to see what was happening. There were at least 50 people there, many in the water, a number with children splashing and playing. There was laughter, music, dancing and singing, and someone had started a grill that people were clustered around to toast marshmallows. People were throwing glow in the dark frisbees, and some were courageous enough to try to catch one as they leapt from the end of the pier often with several dogs following them into the water.

One thing about Rogers Park is that not only is it extremely friendly, spectators aren't tolerated. What I mean by this is the people here won't let someone stand off to the side and watch the fun everyone else is having without inviting them to join in. Within a few minutes, one person asked me if I wanted to roast marshmallows while another called out from the water, telling me to go put on a bathing suit and "get with the program."

They didn't have to tell me twice. I rushed up to change, pulled my hair up, grabbed a towel and my water walking shoes and headed back down. While I'd never advice swimming in Lake Michigan at night as there are almost no lights and the undercurrent that makes it dangerous during the day makes it ten times as dangerous at night, the water was so filled with people, I couldn't see how I could possibly get into trouble. I plunged into the water to the applause of neighbors, coming up to a gaggle of children in floaties and on rafts. Once I'd had my fill of the water I waded out to find a child who couldn't have been more than six standing ready to offer me a stick with a perfectly roasted marshmallow on it.

As I was eating it, she pointed back towards the grill and told me to come make s'mores. Her sentiment was echoed by several others sitting around a blanket filled with chocolate bars and graham crackers. Sitting with them, I couldn't help but think that worries about COVID were not exaggerated. I think when it first hit, we didn't fully realize what we were losing. But after a year and a half of it, we are now extremely aware of what the lack of companionship and just being able to be in the company of others cost us.

It has made the opportunity to get together and celebrate the simple ability to enjoy a full moon with a night swim and some toasted marshmallows seem like the most wonderful party anyone could imagine. I hope that concerns about the rising number of COVID cases turn out to be unwarranted. But if not, I know this is a night I will look back on with happiness even if another lockdown becomes necessary. If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, perhaps it is this - our ability to feel appreciation for one another and to be grateful for simple human contact and the connections and new found friendships that can be discovered beneath a full blue moon in the heat of a late August night.

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Chicago, IL
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