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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser