We all know the moon is primarily responsible for the rising and falling of ocean tides. In most places, but not everywhere, there are two high tides and two low tides a day. For any particular spot on Earth’s surface, the height of the tides and their fluctuation in time depends not only on the moon, but also on the sun – and also on the shape of the specific beach, the larger coastline, the angle of the seabed leading up to land, and the prevailing ocean currents and winds.
The difference in height between high and low waters varies as the moon waxes and wanes from new to full and back to new again. The larger tides are called spring tides (nothing to do with season of spring). The smaller tides are called neap tides. Click the links below to learn more about the tides.
What are spring tides? Around each new moon and full moon, the sun, Earth, and moon arrange themselves more or less along a line in space. Then the pull on the tides increases, because the gravity of the sun reinforces the moon’s gravity. In fact, the height of the average solar tide is about 50% the average lunar tide. Thus, at new moon or full moon, the tide’s range is at its maximum. This is the spring tide: the highest (and lowest) tide. Spring tides are not named for the season. This is spring in the sense of jump, burst forth, rise. So spring tides bring the most extreme high and low tides every month, and they happen around full and new moon.
What are perigean spring tides? When the new moon or full moon closely aligns with perigee – closest point to Earth in the moon’s orbit – then we have an extra-large perigean spring tides. For example, in the year 2017, the May 25 new moon will closely align with perigee and the December 3 full moon will closely coincide with perigee, to bring forth perigean spring tides.
It’s when a spring tide coincides with a time of heavy winds and rain – flooding due to a weather extreme – that the most extreme flooding occurs.
What are neap tides? These sorts of tides occur halfway between each new and full moon – at the first quarter and last quarter moon phase – when the sun and moon are at right angles as seen from Earth. Then the sun’s gravity is working against the gravity of the moon, as the moon pulls on the sea. This is the neap tide: the tide’s range is at its minimum. Neap tides happen approximately twice a month, once around first quarter moon and once around last quarter moon. There’s about a seven-day interval between spring tides and neap tides.
Why are there two high tides and two low tides each day? If the moon is primarily responsible for the tides, why are there two high tides and two low tides each day in most places, for example, the U.S. eastern seaboard? It seems as if there should just be one. If you picture the part of Earth closest to the moon, it’s easy to see that the ocean is drawn toward the moon. That’s because gravity depends in part on how close two objects are. But then why – on the opposite side of Earth – is there another tidal bulge, in the direction opposite the moon? It seems counterintuitive, until you realize that this second bulge happens at the part of Earth where the moon’s gravity is pulling the least.
Earth spins once every 24 hours. So a given location on Earth will pass “through” both bulges of water each day. Of course, the bulges don’t stay fixed in time. They move at the slow rate of about 13.1 degrees per day – the same rate as the monthly motion of the moon relative to the stars. Other factors, including the shape of coastlines, etc., also influence the time of the tides, which is why people who live near coastlines like to have a good tide almanac.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.