My theory postulates winter is coming. Image: HBO
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Is winter really coming? The science behind the weather in Game of Thrones

Warning: spoilers. 

"Winter is Coming": the prophetic motto of House Stark. The meaning behind the motto is the warning of the darker days to come. The motto was first uttered by the late Ned Stark in the first episode of the first season of Game of Thrones. It is the pillar that holds the complex amalgamation of Game of Thrones' corrupt politics, brutal truths, allegiances, love, and sex. Lots of it. (Well, in the TV series that is.)

At face value, the meaning is starkly obvious: things are going to get cold as fuck for an extended period of time (many years – a year in Game of Thrones is measured the same way as it currently is for us – 3651/4).

In George RR Martin's continent Westeros, the seasons are long, extreme and unpredictable. On Earth, seasons are mostly quite the opposite. So can science explain Game of Thrones' seasons? Sure.

A wobbly axial tilt

The Earth's fixed axis is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees from the plane of its orbit around the Sun. This fixed axis is further stabilised by our imposing moon's gravitational tug. The intensity of light energy received in the northern and southern hemispheres is dictated by Earth's location on its orbital plane.

In this example, summer solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere on the left side of the Sun and winter solstice on the right. Both the spring and autumnal equinox receive equal (hence equinox) amount of light energy on the northern and southern hemisphere (seasonal growth changes in plants, ie phenology, mostly give each season its mien):

Image: Nasa

If the Earth's axial tilt wasn't stable, its tilt would be extremely wobbly, resulting in arbitrary seasonal lengths much like in Game of Thrones.

Tilt all over the place. Image: Reddit

In A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)/"The Kingsroad" (the second episode of the first season of Game of Thrones), when Daenerys Targaryen's dragons were nothing but embryos gastrulating in eggs, she heard the legend about a world where Westeros and Essos had two moons, "but one wandered too close to the sun and cracked from the heat. A thousand thousand [one million] dragons poured forth, and drank the fire of the sun." If the legend is true, some sort of cataclysmic celestial event could have caused the loss of the second moon, shifting the planet's axis in an irregular fashion.

It is believed that about 5bn years ago when the Earth was young, an asteroid crashed into Earth, giving it the tilt it has today. The accident was nothing short of a miracle. However, if that same accident (or equivalent, say a nuclear explosion powerful enough to tilt the Earth) were to happen today we wouldn't be so lucky...

An elongated orbit

It would be reasonable to assume that the further away the Earth is from the Sun, the cooler the Earth is. But as science is the opposite of common sense, this isn't the case. The Earth's orbit isn't a perfect circle – it's a little lopsided. Our distance from the Sun at the aphelion point, ie Earth's farthest point from the Sun, bears little to no impact on the Earth's climate (though climate scientists believe it could account for the southern hemisphere's moderate winters). In fact, the Earth is farthest from the Sun in the summer and closet to the Sun in the winter.

The world of Game of Thrones may have an elongated orbit:

Diagram by Tosin Thompson; planet image from Reddit

This elongation would mean the world of Game of Thrones is extremely far from its sun at the aphelion point, which would explain Westeros' long and severe winters. Conversely, during perihelion, ie Earth's closest point to the Sun, the world would have a prolonged summer. This weather pattern is evidenced on Mars.

The problem with this theory is that, unlike what we witness in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, it is patterned and predicable. The people of Westeros would experience typical seasonal cycles of a fixed length. So although feasible, the theory on its own isn't very plausible.

Complex Milankovitch cycles

Milankovitch cycles were developed in the Thirties by Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch and describe the changes in the way the Earth orbits the Sun. The concept suggests that (1) every 100,000 years, Earth's orbit changes from nearly circular to slightly elliptical (eccentricity), affecting other planets in the Solar System, (2) every 41,000 years, the angle of tilt of the Earth's axis changes from 22.1 degrees to 24.5 degrees and (3), every 26,000 years, the direction of the tilt of the axis changes.

Milankovitch cycles slowly change the climate on Earth, normally resulting in colder winters in the northern hemisphere. The cycles are indicative of the fact that ice ages occur every 100,000 years (we're apparently slap bang in the middle of the cycle – the current warm climate we're experiencing may last another 50,000 years).

Game of Thrones seemingly has much shorter Milankovitch cycles in a decade or less, therefore the cycles are likely to be more irregular and complex. 

Oceans, currents and winds

Oceans, currents and winds are factors that can profoundly influence a region's climate, and are themselves, subject to cyclical variations. Currents such as El Niño and La Niña impact on regional climates across timescales as long as five or more years. Westeros may be subject to such long-term weather trends. 

Westeros' geography may be quite different from Earth's; it could have larger oceans, taller mountains, more violent currents and more blustering winds – all of which is a potential recipe (with a sprinkle of magic) for unpredictable and long-term weather trends.

A combination of some or possibly all these factors could be explanations for Game of Thrones' seasonal variability. So winter might be coming.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage