The annual Quadrantid meteor shower is underway, bringing its lovely blips of light streaking across the sky. This shower takes place over several days but has a strong peak the morning of January 3rd. As is the case with all meteor showers, you want to be in a dark location (or if you live in a city, in an unlit location such as a backyard or park or beach), and you need to give yourself 5-10 minutes for your eyes to adapt. You'll want to dress extra-warm and use a sleeping bag so you can relax on your back and enjoy the view skyward. There is no particular direction you need to look; the best view of any meteor shower is directly overhead. Universe Today and EarthSky have helpful articles for further information.
I live on the west side of San Francisco near Ocean Beach and enjoy seeing the impact of the Sun and Moon firsthand. I watch the seasonal changes to the high and low tides at the beach and note the relative impact of the changing phases of the Moon and the subtle influence of the Sun's near and far approaches to the Earth. These changes are compounded on January 1st and the impact on tides will be dramatic.
On January 1st, we'll experience the first of three "SuperMoons" for 2014, but you won't be able to see the first one as it will be a Super New Moon. Previously we had some beautiful Super Full Moons, glorious to watch as they rise and dominate the night sky. But a Super New Moon is so close to the Sun that it's not visible at all. However, it's influence is felt in our oceans and on full display in the tidal highs and lows. On January 1st, we see the convergence of three separate influences on the tides:
- the larger than usual Spring Tide that takes place each month at New Moon
- the influence of "Perihelion" when the Sun is nearest the Earth for the year (specifically on Jan 3)
- the influence of "Perigee" when the Moon is nearest the Earth for this lunar cycle
As these three things line up and reach peak on January 1st, we will see the highest high tides and lowest low tides of the year, also known as a Perigean Spring Tide. At Ocean Beach we will see a +7 foot high tide around 10:30 am, and a -1 foot low tide around 4:30 pm, something that dries up the shore just below the famous Cliff House landmark at the edge of San Francisco. I'll be there!
There is an interesting project called the California King Tides Initiative that seeks to document very high tides, in an effort to evaluate the impact of global warming on coastal communities. When we have Super Moons, the tides are usually higher than usual as well - a chance to experience a King Tide.
Despite the fizzle of Comet ISON, another comet is nearing its closest approach to the Sun and is assuredly *not* going to burn up. Comet Lovejoy 2013 is not a bright comet, but it is a beautiful sight with a long tail as it nears the Sun. Lucky for this comet, it won't be a "sun grazer" like ISON, so there is no threat of imminent disintegration. You'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it in any detail, and it will be best seen toward the end of December when the moonlight will interfere less with the night sky.
This article by Astro Bob contains good information on finding Lovejoy in the morning sky, presently in the constellation Hercules.
In 2005 I began writing a column for the San Francisco Waldorf School newsletter called "The Urban Astronomer." I started this blog in 2007 as a place to archive my articles and to offer additional insights on the night sky - even if you live in a big city. In 2008 I became an occasional guest on the KFOG Morning Show, and more recently on KALW and KGO. Archived shows are posted on the blog.