Blog, Science

Forest Fires & Lunar Eclipses: Blog Story

In August 2015 I was on a road trip with my brother and sister through beautiful British Columbia, Canada.

Driving through the Rocky Mountains is a wonderful experience and if you drive this way then make sure to stop as often as possible to walk throughout the forested landscape!

My siblings and I spent our first night camping before moving to more comfortable bedding at my Aunt’s house on Silver Star Mountain.

A few days later – snuggled-up in a soft duvet – I awoke, startled by the smell of smoke! Quickly (and in my underwear) I rushed around the house trying to find the fire and put it out!

After some frantic investigation, I realized that the house was not on fire and that the smell was actually coming in from outside. The smell was wafting over from a forest fire miles and miles away.

In an attempt to relax, I went out into the yard to do some stretching and morning sun salutations. But to my surprise when I looked up in a weary upward-dog, the sun wasn’t there… In fact, I couldn’t even see the tops of the nearest trees!

I soon realized (you could say it dawned on me) that the sun was being blocked by a thick blanket of smoke from those distant forest fires which had startled me awake in the first place! Apparently, the locals were used to this sort of thing as I saw no other people standing about in their underwear that morning. But to me it was profound. Suddenly the world seemed much, much smaller.

As we left BC and drove back to Alberta through those curvy mountain roads, I thought a lot about the fires which were still ablaze in Montana. The atmosphere seemed so small and vulnerable. Much to delicate for comfort. Driving and looking out at the mountains as they wiz past is usually an awe-filled experience, but today the mountains were indistinguishable from the rest of the smoky sky…

When we arrived home, the sun was setting and the sky was an angry red.

That evening, I dreamt of cars and soot, cities and people. I awoke with a pounding headache which stuck with me for a few days. I was not the only one to experience health issues. On the news others claimed that it hurt to breathe, that inside air conditioning was the only escape. A city-wide warning said that any physical activity outdoors was not recommended – smoke can damage the lungs.

Some weeks later…

By September the smoke had cleared and everyone seemed to have forgotten about the strange daze of August. The sun was out, folks were jogging, school had begun, and my thoughts about the atmosphere had quieted to a moderate background hum – this did not last for long!

“Blood Moon” is a fitting name for the rare lunar eclipse on Sunday, September 27th. The Earth passed between the Moon and Sun while the Moon began to wane. Slowly, the shadow of the Earth caused the Moon to slide into blackness and after some point, the Moon started to glow a beautiful red color – but why?

In theory, the Earth completely blocks the light between the Sun and Moon, so that the Moon appears totally black while it is in an eclipse. As with most things however, theory is not the case in practice. Though the Moon and the Sun are the same relative size in our sky, our planet is encased in a thick and dusty atmosphere and this makes all the difference.

It’s because of our atmosphere that the Moon was glowing red. This is also the reason that the Sun appears red when it’s on the horizon – the atmosphere makes it look that way.

During the Blood Moon, sunlight refracts through the Earth’s atmosphere and eventually illuminates the lunar surface. Because of our atmospheric composition and the strange way that light travels, the moon appears just as red as a sunset!!

A month ago, I was concerned about fires in the kitchen and later that week I watched the sunset turn an angry red color unlike any sunset I have seen before. Smoke, ash and dust from the forest fires had caused the atmosphere to thicken resulting in an especially vibrant sunset. To me, it is amazing that this same ash and dust contributed to the glowing color of the moon more than a month later… Lifted by the wind, it circulates around our planet – moving throughout the air.

Science - Astronomy - Phases of the moon, French 19th C

The redness of the lunar eclipse literally highlights the thinness of Earth’s atmosphere as well as providing some unique perspective. The correlation of two distant events: mountain range forest fires and the color of an eclipsing moon…