May 4 2011 7:24pm

How Seasons Work (Or Don’t Work) in A Song of Ice and Fire

Sansa in the snow by Michael KomarckEvery Wednesday Elio and Linda of premiere Song of Ice and Fire web portal present an essay focusing on an aspect of Westeros, its world, or the series. You can find them all collected on the Song of Ice and Fire Master Index. Some spoilers inherent.

In my previous article, I discussed the history of Westeros in terms of the vast time scales regularly mentioned—the Wall founded 8,000 years ago, the wars between Valyria and Ghis 6,000 years ago, and so on. One of the points to come out of the discussion was that the time-related problem some had wasn’t the time scale, but the multi-year seasons that are a fixture of the novels. It’s one of the first thing anyone mentions when they’re trying to describe the setting. After all, there’s been a long, nine year summer of peace and plenty, and the fact that everyone fears it’s coming to an end is a persistent part of the background. “Winter is coming,” the words of House Stark, are foreboding.

But what causes these strange, unpredictable seasons? We know for certain that they’re not in any way predictable, at least not with the knowledge and observations of the people in the setting. These are “proper” seasons, though, that much we do know. If it’s summer in Westeros, it’s summer in the rest of the hemisphere, too. And yes, it really does seem to have something to do with axial tilt, much as our seasons do. It’s noted that winter means that the days grow shorter. It’s not simply that the weather becomes really cold or really warm, the planet itself appears to change its orbital dynamics in very strange and unpredictable ways.

It’s been a popular topic on the A Song of Ice and Fire forums, this whole matter of what causes the weird seasons. Suggested theories have ranged as far as suggesting dark planets in the near vicinity, perhaps a binary star, and more. But it’s rather fruitless; the author is prosaic on the topic and has provided the direct answer: it’s magic, trying to figure out a scientific, realistic explanation is bound to fail. If the magic means that some sorcerous force works on a planet-wide scale to tilt the planet this way or that... well, that’s what it means. Or is it? Can there be some combination of physical causes that would approximate the apparent-unpredictability and lengthiness of the seasons? I’ve yet to see someone manage anything convincing, but it may be an interesting puzzle for the more scientifically inclined.

Even if we put aside the cause of it, another question comes up: how do you know a year has passed, if you don’t have a dependable cycle of seasons? Martin’s response has noted that a year is related to the completion of one revolution around the sun, and that seasons are a secondary effect. This is why, presumably, the maesters of the Citadel spend so much time on stellar observations, so they can mark the change of seasons. As I was working on this article, however, I admit that two things make me wonder if it “really” works. For one thing, yes, one can use stars as a means of determining where the planet is in its orbit...but doesn’t that depend on a dependable axial tilt? If the planet is “wobbly,” in such a way that it can make seasons last unpredictable lengths, wouldn’t stellar observation have to wrestle with that as well?

This may be a surmountable problem. Once you have a good stellar map, I’d suppose over time you could make enough observations so that you can correct for tilt and still be able to determine where abouts you are in your orbit around the sun. No doubt it’s a complicated thing, and no doubt that’s why the Conclave of the Citadel ends up meeting and going over their amassed records before they declare the start of a new season. In Westeros, white ravens—specially bred by the maesters—are ceremoniously sent out, bearing the tidings.

But one problem seems somewhat less surmountable. Correcting for tilt, observing various astral objects, and so on could probably let you figure out when the Summer and Winter solstice took place. It wouldn’t be predictable, given the way the planet’s tilt refuses to be predictable, but presumably within a short time observations will reveal that the days are lengthening where recently they were shortening, or vice versa....

Presumably, the maesters know that at a certain point of day-length, they’ve crossed into spring or fall. But perhaps I’m entirely wrong, and this notion of correcting for weird, wobbly planetary tilt doesn’t really work. Would you have to amass tens of thousands of observations to be able to make charts that speed up the processing? I’d certainly be interested in seeing books of astrology/astronomy in the setting—I do not believe any have been specifically mentioned—because I’m sure they’d be full of useful information.

The last thing that people wondered about regarding the seasons is a genuine question: just how do you survive a ten-year winter? Or how did people survive the Long Night, a winter that allegedly lasted a generation? The answer is...we don’t really know. Of course, we don’t know that the Long Night actually lasted so long. But there have been multi-year winters in living memory...and in the unknown, southern hemisphere of the planet, they’re suffering a nine year winter right now. Maybe there’s no landmasses much further south than the equator?

I do know that grain can be stored for up three years, if properly turned and kept aired. And as the Russians of the Middle Ages showed, permafrost makes a wonderful natural refrigerant. Surviving a year-long winter seems doable. But after that, there are bigger questions. Where do you get meat? How do you get all the vitamins you need? The Starks of Winterfell may have the wherewithal to keep “glass gardens” where they can grow vegetables and fruits even in winter, but the vast majority of the North doesn’t have that benefit. And how do plants survive? I’ve even been asked if it’s possible that animals might be capable of hibernating for decades in the setting...and I don’t really know the answer to that. It’s not mentioned.

But surely, if a planet was as wonky as the planet of A Song of Ice and Fire, there would have to be some sort of adaptation to it. Maybe plants and trees are capable of stasis, shutting everything down and subsisting on a tiny drip of stored energy for years at a time? The same with animals, one supposes.

In the end, the long seasons are probably a phenomenon that need to be seen as a conceit of the story, one that shouldn’t be looked at too closely. It provides impetuous for a lot of the plot, making the struggles over crowns and thrones seem short-sighted in the extreme, but it’s there to heighten the stakes and not really to provide a sense of realism....

And maybe, just maybe, they’re par of the reason that Westeros seems relatively stagnant, in terms of development. I think back to Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” where the very rare appearance of stars in the night sky has been marked by civilizations running mad and destroying themselves, resetting the developmental clock as the few survivors pick up the pieces. Does Westeros become like this, after every many-years winters? It might very well do so. Perhaps they’ve picked up the pieces again and again over millennia, and that’s one reason that they haven’t yet reached a post-medieval sort of era.

“Winter is coming,” and it means terrible things. And it also means a few headaches, as new readers try to puzzle through these same questions, hunting for answers when there’ll probably be none beyond, “It’s magic.” The “human heart in conflict with itself”—a favorite Faulkner quote of GRRM’s—doesn’t really require scientifically-rigorous astronomy.

Illustration of Sansa in the snow by Michael Komarck

Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio crossed an ocean to join Linda in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.

Saso Alauf
1. Saso Alauf
Do we even know if it's a completely round world? I know that would seem logical, and maybe this makes me sound mad but could the planet be some weird shape?

I'm really trying hard not to include Granny Weatherwax and the Discworld into this one...
Saso Alauf
2. Lilly
I just assumed the concepts of "summer" and "winter" had to do with the political atmosphere of peace or war, not the actual seasons. But then again, I'm only halfway through the first book. So far, though, this metaphorical sense seems to be the only way "summer/winter" has been presented.
Saso Alauf
3. peachy
Jordan does something a little similar in terms of slowing down technological development in his world - every thousand years Ishamael gets loose for a generation and completely mucks everything up, to the point that there's even a degree of long-term regression in terms of population etc. (And Tolkien used the baleful influence of Sauron and his minions in the same basic way, at least in the Third Age... there was always some fresh wave of invaders to occupy everyone's energies, with a correspondingly negative effect on the advancement of peaceful pursuits.)
Saso Alauf
4. mollydot
Judging a revolution by the stars wouldn't necessarily depend on tilt. They probably have something like our zodiac. When the sun is in, say, Sagittarius (really in it, not pretendy astrological chart in it), it means the sun is between us and the constellation, so we can't see it. But we would be able to see the sign opposite it; Gemini, I think. So a revolution could be judged by the constellations that can be seen.
It would probably be harder for them, because I'm pretty sure our ecliptic does depend on the tilt, so they might not be able to see their Gemini equivalent directly, but a constallation above or below it. But they'd have a decent star map by this point and would be able to work it out.
Saso Alauf
5. Jeff R.
(1) I got the impression that there are normal-ish "subseasons" in each year, guiding crop plantings if nothing else, and also (2) that even in the longer winters, a narrow equatorial band stays at least temperate and can produce food for the parts of the country that are snowed in but which don't have the glass garden thing going.

On the other hand, I generally thought that there were huge grain silos all over the place that generally didn't come into the action, but that's seeming unlikely after _aFfC_...
Saso Alauf
6. Osan'gar's Razor
If Jordan, Tolkien, et al. depended on calamitous events to delay human progress, they failed to take into account humanities wonderful ability to respond to such events with great leaps forward. E.g., both the Plague and WWII resulted in great leaps forward by western civilization.

Years long winters are rather more problematic. In addition to the massive problems that would cause for any temperate ecosystem, massive numbers of people would certainly die (There is a reason the Year Without a Summer was also known as the Poverty Year and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death). Given Martin's rather grim world in general, he may be well aware of the implications. One would almost think as soon as the maesters declared autumn everyone would throw down their weapons and say 'f*** war, I gotta figure out how I'm going to survive.'
Adam Whitehead
7. Werthead
An excellent conversation with George RR Martin on the topic:

The question of agriculture in the North. From what we've seen in the books so far, it looks like even in summer the snow covers most of the lands in the North, and it surely does cover all in winter, doesn't it?

I wouldn't say that snow "covers most of the lands" in summer.
Rather than they have occasional summer snows. It never gets really hot in the north, even in summer, but it's not icy and snowing all the time either.

Winter is a different tale.

But quite a lot of people are living there. What do they eat?

A lot of food is stored. Smoked, salted, packed away in granaries,
and so on. The populations along the coast depend on fishing a great
deal, and even inland, there is ice fishing on the rivers and on Long
Lake. And some of the great lords try and maintain greenhouses to
provide for their own castles... the "glass gardens" of Winterfell are
referred to several times.

But the short answer is... if the winter lasts too long, the food runs out... and then people move south, or starve...

Are there some areas without snow, which are suitable for agriculture, or are there significant temperature changes inside the "bigger seasons"? To grow a harvest, at least a couple of months' time of warm temperature (15-20 degrees by Celsius) is needed. Is it available in the North?

Sometimes. It is not something that can be relied on, given the
random nature of the seasons, but there are "false springs" and "spirit
summers." The maesters try and monitor temperature grand closely, to advise on when to plant and when to harvest and how much food to store.

And what happens when a winter comes - five, six years long?

Famine happens. The north is cruel.

Surely, the import of grain from the South alone can't cover the North's needs. And, by the way, does it snow in the South during the winter?

Yes, some times, in some places. The Mountains of the Moon get quite
a lot of snow, the Vale and the riverlands and the west rather less,
but some. King's Landing gets snow infrequently, the Storm Lands and
the Reach rarely, Oldtown and Dorne almost never.
Saso Alauf
8. Gorgonzo
I assumed the planet may be on a strange elliptical around its star, perhaps varying due to other stellar phnomena as well.

Or it could just be some baaaaaadaaaaaaassssss magic.
Saso Alauf
9. icantthinkofone
How long has the wonky season thing been going on? I know the Long Night was far in the past, but in "The Hedge Knight", it's mentioned in passing that the seasons got a lot longer after the last dragons died. That suggests that there may have been a decent period of more normal weather patterns.
Saso Alauf
10. Ellynne
Of course, you also have a rise in magic as the long winters kick in. While (so far) the rise in magic seems to come with the winter, from a survival stand point, access to magical power increases at a time when more mundane survival tools (heat, shelter, access to food) have gone down.

So, if I were trying to rationalize this in a scientific way, I'd point out that this is the survival mechanism that seems to kick in during winter, use of magic.

Also, just as there are animals and plants that may go dormant during the long winter, there seem to be others (or Others) whose life cycle kicks in during winter.
Saso Alauf
11. peachy
Disaster does sometimes kickstart progress, but that's far from a
universal connection... smack a civilisation around hard enough and it's
not coming back up. (Hi there, Minoan Crete!) That's pretty much what
Jordan does with his massive millenial wars, and perhaps what Martin
does with the really nasty winters. Other civilisations just get ground
down by incessant struggle - Tolkien does the Fall of Rome in super
slow-mo with the Numenorean kingdoms in Middle Earth. (You see it
particularly with Gondor - at the time of the War of the Ring it's at
the 'whole state is an armed camp under siege and running out of steam
fast' stage. There's just no energy left for anything but survival.)

@7 - Yeah, I had the impression that the far south never gets that bad; we tend to focus on the North because of the Stark connection, and forget that Westeros is a whole freaking continent.
Saso Alauf
12. Stonedrake
My read on the seasons in Westeros were that the always had 'seasons' -- normal, mundane, quarter-of-the-year seasons -- but they also had, effectively, miniature ice ages. The Long Night was an ice age and what they call Winter (with a capital W) are shorter ones. Next to such a Winter, any mundane winter seems summer in comparison.

That's how I rationalise it anyway.
13. amphibian
Grain can be stored forever in the right situations. There's been seeds pulled out of pyramids and successfully planted.

Hard to get those right situations in the North though. Martin's answer of importation makes a good deal of sense. Also means that Westeros isn't normally as inwardly facing as it is now. International commerce and trade is essential.
Iain Cupples
15. NumberNone
5: yes, that's my impression too. It would go some way towards answering the problems.

But in general, I think trying to find an explanation in terms of axial tilt or whatever is missing the point. The 'it's magic' explanation is the beginning and end of it. This is a world where genetics, for example, makes no sense in real-world terms either. Nor does physics, where magic or dragons are concerned. The distribution of languages doesn't work. The biology is dodgy. And so on.

In any fantasy, the setting doesn't really work if you look closely enough - and normally this is where magic comes into play. Rapid healing, instantaneous travel across continents, reading minds, invoking lightning, you name it: every fantasy has a point where you have to accept that there's a guy behind the curtain pulling the levers if you only look. Ironically for a series that's often singled out as a 'low-magic' setting, in ASOIAF that curtain is pretty up-front. There may not be a pethora of wizards tossing fireballs, but the entire setting is to a large degree a magical conceit.
Saso Alauf
16. Rebekah Wortman
I am not bothered by the idea that "it's magic" that controls the seasons and that no other explanantion is given. I have always just assumed it was a similar theme to Narnia - underlying deep magics that are so embedded into the fabric of the world itself that the world and nature operate outside of the realm of normal scientific understanding. Those are the things we love about fantasy novels :D
Saso Alauf
17. icantthinkofone
11: Actually, the Santorini eruption wasn't the death blow for Minoan Crete. It's really compelling to think it was, which is why it's still in a lot of textbooks, but the most recent radioactive/tree ring dates indicate that the chronology doesn't match up. The Minoans soldiered on for some time.
Saso Alauf
18. ryamano
If Jordan, Tolkien, et al. depended on calamitous events to delay human
progress, they failed to take into account humanities wonderful ability
to respond to such events with great leaps forward. E.g., both the
Plague and WWII resulted in great leaps forward by western civilization.

Like others said, sometimes civilization doesn't weather these crisis well. The Mayans and the people from Easter Island are examples. There are other cases where civilizations kind of disappeared or returned to "less developed" stages. It's not always a full-on "progress", as we've seen in western europe in the last 1,000 years. Sometimes there's a dead end.
Saso Alauf
19. UrsulaMinor
I don't know much about ASOIAF - but I know a bit about astronomy. The first thing that came to mind was that this world orbits a variable star, with a pulsation period measured in years (Long period Variable). They come in a few different flavours, including some that have irregular phases of bright and dim.

These stars are always large, like a red giant (Coincidentally, our sun will eventually become a red giant) Likely this planet is orbiting much further from the parent star than earth does from the sun - which means the effect of axial tilt on the seasons would probably be less than the effect of star variability.

This would pretty happily explain the years-long seasonal cycle if it weren't for different seasons in the north and south poles. This makes me staggeringly unhappy for some reason because of the awesome science fiction opportunity missed here, where a whole planet shares seasonal cycles. As it is I don't understand why, if the planet has been doing this forever, the cultures on it are not semi-nomadic. Listen, if you knew that, in a year or so, the entire northern hemisphere would be plunged into the depth of winter and would stay that way for a decade, why the hell aren't you moving to the south lands? The energy involved in the move cannot possibly be greater than attempting to store enough food for ten years of winter even if you had to smash some faces in for it and cross an ocean. This is a planet where seasons are less of a time marker and more of a mobile resource. After all, if summer means prosperity and winter means death, why wouldn't you go follow summer?

... I realize I am possibly being overly critical of a series I have not yet read. There is probably a perfectly good reason that they don't. Or maybe they do move.

Anyway. Variable stars. Coulda been great.
Clay Blankenship
20. snoweel
OK, it's Magic but I'll speculate anyway.

The Seasons could be a combination of:

1. Orbital factors: axial tilt, eccentricity of orbit, direction of axis. Look up "Milankovitch cycles" if you want to read about this. These generally happen on a timescale of thousands of years and are predictable, but it's conceivable there could be some chaotic interaction with other planets making them unpredictable or faster.

2. Solar variability. Actually that is pretty plausible to me.

3. Shifting climate regimes. On Earth, cycles like the El Nino/Southern Oscillation and North Atlantic Oscillation often have two distinct phases with quite different weather patterns. These are usually quasi-stable, but can "flip" somewhat chaotically. Maybe on AGOT's world there is an extremely intense version of this. Or consider the hypothesized global freezing as a result of the shutdown of the oceanic "conveyer belt" seen in the movie "The Day After Tomorrow" (farfetched, but possible to some extent). If there is some warm ocean current like the Gulf Stream keeping Westeros warm that occasionally goes away for several years, that could explain part of it (except Westeros is probably too big to have that much marine influence).

4. Volcanism could come and go, leading to periods of global cooling due to reduced incident sunlight.

In combination with the above, there could be climate feedbacks like the snow-albedo feedback (snow covered land is more reflective, leading to less absorbed heat, leading to lower tempertures, leading to more snow). If most of the landmasses (and polar seas) are covered with ice, it might take an extreme warm event to ever get out of the icy phase.
Ashley Fox
21. A Fox
Our planet fluxs by a few degress over the millenia, i assumed this 'planet' did too; on a much smaller time scale and smaller temp differance (whilst Winter is bad its not an ice age, and summer doesnt involve all those explosions)

I have noted that the populations do sem to be nomadic, to a certain extent. North westeros is regularily invaded (seemingly in the Summer), the Dragons, the folk before them. As Winter starts its return they lose power. (I have only read the first book! I have a sneaking suspicion the 2nd will put some holes in this statement. O_0 )
Saso Alauf
22. kesben78
I've gone with the same theory I had as a child in school. When I went to school, I was miserable, and the weather was stark, cold and grey. When school was out, I was happy, and the summer seemed endless. It seems like winter is coming in Westeros with the passing of the best of men and the rising of the worst of men...the white walkers advance with it, wipe out civilization, the best of what is left rises against them and summer returns. :)
Saso Alauf
23. Gentleman Farmer
I like the proposed theory of a variable star, makes a lot of sense to me.

I don't recall anywhere in the series where it is indicated that the southern hemisphere is experiencing the reverse seasons to the north. Lands further south are warmer (presumably as they near the equator), but I don't think there is anything saying they're experiencing a 9 year winter right now, nor that there is any possibility to be nomadic.

In terms of sources, I had always assumed part of the inspiration for the concept was biblical, with Joseph's dream of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine played out on a global scale and with global weather systems to support the concept.
Elio García
24. Egarcia
Hah. A recent GRRM "Not a Blog" post had comments getting into the seasons... and George provided a snazzy new quote that succinctly explains his answer:

Uh... guys... it's fantasy. Magic, y'know?
Astrology, not astrophysics.

Saso Alauf
25. Audiovore
If you want a scientifically explained setting with 'wacky' seasons, perhaps the Helliconia series is in order?
Saso Alauf
26. Eunomiac
I foresee three possibilities, most already referred to above, but I'll try to be pithy and add something new:

"It's MAGIC!" Though this neatly and simply explains everything... I really hope not.

"It's ASTRONOMY" As a space-geek, I love this idea for obvious reasons. But I don't know how well it would fit into a series: Orbital dynamics, axial tilt, gravitational interactions/resonance with other bodies, etc. are too complex an explanation to bore readers with. Though the maesters do study the stars, their significance could be overstated (much as they were for ancient astronomers on our world).

"It's DISASTERS" This best handles the unpredictability of seasonal changes, but it does raise questions of scale: How big would, say, a volcanic eruption have to be to bring about a generational winter all by itself? Krakatoa was heard around the world; the maesters wouldn't need crows, because winter would literally arrive with a BANG. Even though I'm sure there are more subtle disasters we could imagine (this is, after all, a fantasy world), I don't see them being undetectable and big enough and sufficiently regular (though unpredictably so) to cause a perpetual four-season cycle (instead of a nosedive from summer down to a full-blown ice age)

"It's ASTRONOMY PLUS DISASTERS!" This is how I'd do it, which is the most I can say because "this is how I think it works" goes a little far for the scant information we have.

The key is in finding some way of uniting two things that don't play well together: the regular nature of a summer-fall-winter-spring cycle, and the irregular nature of the transitions between the seasons.

Disasters, as I mentioned, don't do a good job of explaining the "circular" regularity of the four-season cycle. You'd expect regular seasons interrupted with the occasional blasted-earth desertification or nuclear ice age.

But, a disaster that is influenced by an astronomical cycle could provide the necessary unpredictability. Think of it like pulling a brick across sandpaper with an elastic band: You can increase your pull with a regular pace, but the brick will always move in unpredictable fits and starts. Some astronomical cycle is the elastic band, and some dependent disaster is the brick, and when the brick moves, the seasons change.

For example: There's an undiscovered, massive continent somewhere, perhaps west of Westeros, maybe beyond the Wall, or maybe it's Sousteros. Anywho, permafrost in the polar regions of this continent continuously absorbs methane and other powerful greenhouse gasses from within the planet. A variety of astronomic cycles (e.g. the amount of this low-lying area covered by freezing tides when it's high noon) and geologic factors (e.g. the amount of methane seeping up from below) governs how much methane is released to blanket the planet in warmth. Lots of methane? Long Summer. Little methane? Long Winter. Rare alignments of these various influences would cause extremes to either side, but by-and-large they would be regular on a geological timescale (but unpredictable on human timescales).
Saso Alauf
27. Nona
I was thinking along those continental lines as well, Eunomiac but then I thought How far south is Westeros from the Pole, What if the Wall is in some equivalent Mexico or Central America? Could the Pole be that massive? I'm not to up on our own Ice Age but there had to be some global variance in weather.
Saso Alauf
28. Shloz
Since it's fantasy (duh), science doesn't really necessarily apply; that's why I go back to the information in the books themselves to find an answer. And if you look, there is information, especially regarding the last few seasonal switches.

Has anyone else noticed that the previous few season switches winters seem to have occurred during periods of political upheaval and war? We know that Bran has yet to see a winter - and he was born after the Greyjoy rebellion, the last war that Robert and Ned fought in together.

Jaime was appointed to the Kingsguard during the great tourney at Harrenhal, which was in the "year of the false spring", i.e. a year during winter that seemed to be a spring. We further learn that Jaime was knighted the year before that, during the Blackfyre rebellion. On the other side, the Harrenhal tourney put events in motion leading to Robert's rebellion.

So the past few cycles have been:
Blackfyre rebellion - winter;
Blackfyre rebellion over, year of quiet with Harrenhal tourney - false spring;
Robert's rebellion - winter;
after Robert's rebellion (at some point) - summer;
Greyjoy's rebellion - winter;
After Greyjoy's rebellion - summer;
Present day - war of the Five Kings, plus New Dance of the Dragons - winter coming (a Long Night)

Sound convincing?
In Weis and Hickman's Rose of the Prophet series, the rose seemed to begin to bloom the closer the rival tribes came to uniting,and vice versa. Could the seasons in GRRM's world work in a similar way?
Saso Alauf
29. matt snow
I didn't think there was a southern hemisphere or that it mattered. It looks to me like Westeros goes all the way south as far as land goes on the map as does Esos (with maybe a sort of uninhabited south pole?).

either way, I would LOVE to see your challenge to scientists be addressed as a joke on The Big Bang Theory with Sheldon rocking out on a longwinded explanation of the seasons in GRRM's ASoIaF! that would be priceless!
Saso Alauf
30. Vash the Stampede
I thought it was obvious what caused the seasons...the frikkin Dark Tower!

Na, anyway, one thing I've noticed is that most of the scientific explanations use external forces to explain the tilt of the planet but how about internal? Instead of binary stars it could be a binary core or even possibly the uneven cooling and heating of the mantle that cause the irregular axis tilt.
Anthony Pero
31. anthonypero
Way late to the thread, but to answer some questions about why the heck the North doesn't just abandon the North for the South, since it would be easier to survive... Because they have this great big Wall they have to man and protect, or all lands, the south included are toast... metophorically speaking, of course :)
Saso Alauf
32. MattyGroda
Hi all, First and Foremost SPOILERS SOPILERS SPOILERS!!!!!!
So just finished readin ADwD and felt like doing some extracurricular work, and the seasons seemed like a good start. Several things.
1) Wars; (Going with posters 2 and 28) relying mostly on anecdotal evidence it seems like this Winter and the last happened at times of strife. This time it started shortly (alright probly serveal years its hard to tell) after the death of Eddard and the last was 9 years ago around the time of Balon Greyjoy's rebellion.

2) Magic (duh); the three most noteable events of magical significance are A) the most noticble is the Birth of Dany's Dragons. Giant Mythical Beasts not seen for a centery or two. And when Bran ventures North Leaf tells him that the magic of the world had begun to fade when the last Dragon died. But now that 3 have been born... B) The Big Red Comet that seemed to have come and gone without doing much more then inspire everyone who saw it to do foolish things (mainly go to War) and C) And undoubtly the least explained; The Glass Candels! All we know is that they're Valyrian, and have been burning or even able to be lit as they as the Maesters can remember. But after the Dragons and Winter arrive they're lit.

Finally 3) this is my weakest argument but in the title scenes of the show the world is presented as a Clockwork Machine. Implying that someone or something may be winding the gears?
Stuart Hobbs
33. rocketshobbs
As far as volcanos and all that, the only reference I've seen to them is Valyria's Doom; which apparently is still smoking and boiling.
Saso Alauf
34. Trepur
"How long has the wonky season thing been going on? I know the Long Night was far in the past, but in "The Hedge Knight", it's mentioned in passing that the seasons got a lot longer after the last dragons died. That suggests that there may have been a decent period of more normal
weather patterns."

If thats the case, then problem solved. The long night was really just an ice age, albiet a short one if the histories are right (and thats a big if given that its oral tradition the histories are past down by). If the seasons have gone out of wack recently, then we wouldn't have developed the time to properly evolve.

Next, if were not talking strictly the books, we can look at the HBO series for a hint about technoligcal progression. Grain, in our world, can be stored for 3 years at a time, but according to little finger in season 2 episode 1, it can be stored for 5 years. This could suggest that their methods of storing food are superior to ours, technology no doubt adapted due to the abnormally long winters.
Saso Alauf
35. Jach
I don't know why readers would feel a great need to describe-ascribe a realistic/scientific function for the seasons. If it's primarily motivated by magic, it's magic - no realism is required. And rather than try to imagine competing planetary and gravitic forces and odd orbits, isn't it simpler to assume magic magic just changes the course and intensity of the sun? There doesn't have to be a pattern to the seasons at all, and magic driven micro ice ages would seem to fit in if you desperately need some real-world comparison.
Saso Alauf
36. Jach
If you assume the sun orbits the world, and that magic affects its intensity, distance, angle, speed and so on, the odd winters and summers are quite simple.
Saso Alauf
37. Yet Another Geek
The two main types of explanation are astronomical (to do with the planetary orbit) and climactic (ocean currents, albedo etc).

The TV series hinted at an astronomical explanation. The problem with that is that even a very long astronomical cycle should be predicable. Also, the ecosystem seems to suited to the seasons suggesting that the situation is long standing.

I suggest that the atmospheric and oceanic currents have two stable states, one much colder that the other. The flips between these states would then be essentially be random.
David Randle
38. wolfshield
When I read ASOIAF (I've read all 5 books), I perceive the seasons to be in terms of temperature and growing seasons, rather than in terms of what stars are visible in the night sky. The variable star explanation for the sun put forth by UrsulaMinor and others makes a lot of sense to me.

I'm from earth, and our own sun has a solar cycle of about 11 years, with power output varying by as much as .1% during that time. A star with more power variation would certainly have profound effects on temperature and growing seasons.

Yes, I know GRRM has stated "it's magic"... but it doesn't have to be.
Saso Alauf
39. Winterishere
'Yes, I know GRRM has stated "it's magic"... but it doesn't have to be.'

But it is. That's what the author has stated. You're second-guessing the man who created the whole thing?
Zorila Desufnoc Eht
40. AlirozTheConfused
Look, if this series contained a chapter of, say, Eddard Stark leaping over the 700 foot wall; you'd complain and say that it was impossible and unrealistic. If this series contained a chapter of, say, Eddard Stark sneezing hard enough to send him to the moon, you'd complain. Or a chapter of Eddard Stark picking up a mountain range and moving it, you'd complain.

If there were islands floating up in the sky, or a usable tunnel through the planet's core, or a character made up entirely of liquid, or if Davos shed his skin ro reveal a smaller Davos underneath, or if, say, Gregor Clegane got cut in half and then both halfs were alive and went around terrorizing people, or if Bran Stark suddenly cured himself of having broken legs by wishing really hard; you'd complain.

You expect immutable physical laws to be obeyed, and when they aren't, you get upset and complain.

Having a twenty-year-winter is just as stupid as having Brandon Stark cure himself through wilpower.

I don't know why you're okay with one impossible thing that defies all sense (how does winemaking work? How does agriculture work? How would life survive such a long summer?)

There is no explanation given by GRRM, no adaptations to accommodate it.

So, if this series gets an exemption on failing physics and biology and how life basically works; why shouldn't bad science movies like The Core?

Double standard much?
Saso Alauf
41. Laura from tvtropes
If the series established that this was part of the world, that it was just a thing that happened, and a pretty iconic part at that, it would be fine.
Zorila Desufnoc Eht
42. AlirozTheConfused
You have a good point there, Laura.

I didn't think of it that way.
Saso Alauf
43. TheArgus
I've been trying really hard to find a way to hand this off without turning out a 10 paragraph dump of faulty assumptions, so I'm just going to sit the idea out there and not try to have any further control.

I think there are a lot of interesting possibilities which all involve the presence of some other body, planetary or satelite, which is affecting various things in the series' world (book series, other series, whichever) and which for one of various possible reasons is not and for at least some time has not been visible from the continents on which the main action takes place. Rather than try to do theories I will try to list a few quick things I've seen as important rules/limitations to consider (I just got interested in the whole thing today and have been neck deep in the story characters, and (less than I had planned) geography for a good 5 hours now.

- The "planet" of the series has its own conventional moon which (I think) is supposed to make up the basis for a ~Earth-length lunar cycle which people in the world have decided to put 12 of in a year. This means that whatever the "planet" is has got to have a Hill sphere of its own either by following the usual rules or having magically superdense stuff in it.

- Seasonal changes could have a lot to do with tidal cycles that may not work like ours. If there is something out there in space causing that shadow at the edge of the known world, it has a good chance of pulling a lot of the planet's nice cold water from the poles and keeping that bulge wobbling out there for potentially a good while as meanwhile who knows what crazy meteorogical stuff is brewing as a result.

- I recently saw a pretty convincing post on this same site which 99% probably don't need me to point you toward which I think give some good figures for how much room one might have to work with in terms of explored planet from which to have a vantage point of what's going on star system wize.

- Really underthought more recent but quite exciting idea I've had involves planets with simi-shared orbits (Neptune & Pluto like) and wheter as likely as magic is the possibiilty that they could be crossing paths every 3 years for example and passing off a natural satelite which could be taken for a mythical dragon-egg moon or some other such situation. Possibilitys abound with this, maybe some are even marginally not-impossible. I would love to find out from someone with mad Astrophysics skills.
Saso Alauf
44. Duggy
I think too many people are seeing "It's magic" as a dismissal of the question. Too often we've seen it by creators unwilling to explain mistakes or problems.

But my assumption of the winter was that it was related to the coming of The Others. That rather than them coming because it is winter, it is winter because they are coming. That they, either deliberately or as a side effect of who they are bring about the winter.

Remember that The Others came during The Long Night.

The disaster theories of others above considered natural disasters. But what if it is, rather, a supernatural disaster?
Saso Alauf
45. Thai Breuer
I wrote this thing and then I finished the thread and reached 44. Duggy's last post.. Thursday June 27, 2013 06:17am EDT
beat me to the finish line by a mere week...

In the same spirit as 43. TheArgus:

I think is pretty straightforward. Martin gave us the answer plainly enough: "It's magic". ANd I accept even with my scientific nature and passion for the (though I like 19. UrsulaMinor's explanation of the pulsating sun. Scientifically sound enough for me).

5. Jeff R. got it right with the sub-seasons.

Magic is rarely approached directly, especially in the first books, but remember that the first prologue to the whole series opens with a straightforward encounter with an White Walker. Magic is part of this world, men just forgot. And it creeps out slowly until every character gets a taste of it (even if it's just the wind whispering ..Theon.. amongst red leaves).

I think the planet has nothing wrong with his orbit and within the so-called seasons it has proper ones, just like ours. This is why it would be proper to call it an Ice Age instead of Winter (or separate it with capital letters from the sidereal winter). Westeros could be experiencing a short Winter across the sidereal summer and seem like a mild one.

If we take what Martin says and pair it with the nature of magic beings in the pages of the books, the explanation is before our eyes. It is stated clear enough that the re-birth of Dragons brought power back in the hands of the followers of R'hllor and the dragonglass candle is burning in the Citadel.
The same is true of the Others as well. Old Nan used to say that the Others come when the days grow colder, or maybe they grow colder because the Others come. Myself, I am of the latter.

We know the Others are descending upon the south and the Winter to come promises to be a long one. We know little and less of what happens beyond the wall (hopefully Winds of Winter will show us more, if I recall correclty from an interview with Martin I read somewhere). Maybe short Winters mean the White Walkers are shifting their domains a little south of the unknown Nord. Longer ones that they are creeping to the dwelling of the wildlings.

As for the sustenance issue during a long Winters, is smple enough: "Just borrow from the Iron Bank of Braavos!".
Saso Alauf
46. Thai Breuer
BTW, 1/4 of Martin's literary heart is in scifi (I leave chess a whole heart of their own).
He didn't create just one world but The Thousand Worlds.
If he wanted to give a scientific explanation he could have.
Saso Alauf
47. quasques
I think for one thing it provides a good reason they're so warlike, with the population bursts in the summer and harsh long ass winters they probably get a big killing field going every fall by instinct. plunder resources and shed population and such could see a small core of breeders through winter.

I mean "winter is going to fuck us and we can't feed this many, I'm too old to see spring regardless(go "hunting") and most of these strong young men will starve or feeze to death, so I brought them to war looking to loose them, I'd sooner see them die saving The Ned's daughter than end crying frozen tears from the hunger pain in their bellies. this way they can die like men. not turning back we keep marching" was expecitly given as among the primary reasons the northern clans joined stanis against dreadfort.

that in mind i'm suprised field burning is as acceptable/used as it is. This seems like the sort of line one doesn't cross even in war unless you want everybody to gang up on you to end it. Like poisoning wells in dune. (yes kill the peasents, but leave the grain intact. I mean pillage it yes obviously but you can't be shortsighted enough to blatently destroy/waste)
Saso Alauf
48. adsfasdf
I'd just assumed it was an iceage sort of deal not actual seasons but something that overrides it by being cold anyway(backed up in my mind by "summer snow(ie a normal non iceaged winter)" and apparently having growing cycles in summer and somehow measuring regular years). but short(frequently under a decade, ocasionaly far longer) duration, caused by fluctuations in magical forces(possibly the fighting red and blue gods, if not real demons then at least as "fictional" dieties(with "arcane" spells learned by priests) which represent/explain this cycle) boning the weather as stated.

they had doccumented something far milder but like that irl in medieval times. iceland/greenland were colonized in nonstandard climates and named appropriately, england made great wine for a bit ect.
Saso Alauf
50. AmateurAstronomer
We have seen in some outer system moons, and possibly in some of the newly-discovered solar systems, situations where bodies can exchange orbits with each other. Perhaps with an eccentric orbit, this might only happen when both bodies are closest to each other - perihelion for one, and the opposite for the other. This could result in chaotic season lengths (yes, actual chaos math) depending on which orbit you were in. I might even explain where the Others came from. The primary in the system would likely be an M dwarf to have such close planetary orbits.
Saso Alauf
51. Snipsley
I like to think that the "Song of Ice and Fire" is the endless war between R'hllor (god of light, heat, and life), and the Great Other (the god of ice and death). These two guys are obviously much more real than Andals' Seven Gods, considering Melisandre's powers. When R'hllor is winning, it's summer, when he's losing, it's winter. And the setting in the books looks like R'hllor is losing big time now; the Great Other even somehow managed to assemble the Others in a great number, so it seems there are pretty nasty stuff waiting for us in the Westeros.
Saso Alauf
52. tomb
Guass made himself famous for predicting where one of the moons of jupiter would reappear after hding behind jupiter. You see the orbit of the moon was influenced by the other moons and some crazy math was required to solve the problem. We don't know the makeup of their solar system but it's plausible that the gravity of other bodies in space alter the planet's orbit too, enough for a long-term change in seasons.
Saso Alauf
53. Athreeren
If every Maester assumes it's magic, but they don't have the physics knowledge to come up with a better explanation, then we may consider it's magic, and we may also try to find a better explanation, after all, it will never be included in the books.

So I can accept that the seasons work through magic (but even then, I would like to know if it is magic as in “it is linked to the activities of the White Walkers and the existence of dragons”, “it is the mirror of nations” or “it's just magic, don't think about it”), but I really wonder how the white ravens work. I understand that ravens used to be sent to their destination through warging, then had to be trained when warging became a lost art in the South. But white ravens are sent without a message, they are the message tehmselves. So how can they be trained? Are they regularly sent to every castle with a message “this is just a test, please disregard”?
Anthony Pero
54. anthonypero

Only problem is that the Red God's priests powers are only now starting to wax. It doesn't really make sense that when Rhllor is "winning", his people's powers are diminished. It also doesn't take into account the drowned god, who appears to be a real deal, or the children of the forest, or bran, or any of that.
Saso Alauf
55. Marshmoss
If the planet is “wobbly,” in such a way that it can make seasons last unpredictable lengths, wouldn’t stellar observation have to wrestle with that as well?
If years are counted as periods of 1 turn of the planet around its sun, than the planet axis' tilt doesn't prevent you from observing it. Because you measure it by projection of the sun onto the "sphere of distant stars". It only depends on mutual position of the planet and its sun. (as when damn astrologists say "The Sun is in such and such constellation")

If precession period is somewhat close to planet's orbiting cycle, but not quite the same, then we shall have this extended seasons. But if they are also unstable then the precession period also has to be unstable. That was (still is?) the real case with Mars and that's one of hypotheses why it lost its atmosphere.
People think that in order to have such unstable axis planet must be quite spherecal and must not have any big moon.

About surviving in such conditions - it's tougher, but in altogether milder climate Antarctica used to have forests and lots of animals and they were surviving through half-year polar nights, so maybe... Provided hybernations for really cold times.
Saso Alauf
56. Rajarshi Som
How would people in tropical regions survive a long summer?
A years-long summer at low latitudes would cause large-scale evaporation of water, leading to drought, crop failure and famine. Besides, a lot of people would simply die of exposure to the sun, i.e., from sunstroke.
Thai Breuer
57. ThaiBreuer

R'hllor's priests powers are indeed increasing. The red priest in Robert Baratheon's entourage was a "fraud" and now he can revive people with a kiss (Thoros of Myr if I remember correctly). But I guess this is due to the birth of the dragons (which is a chance event caused by Daenerys).
Overall the Great Other's power is increasing but luckly the dragons were born so the Fire side is not in such a dyre position.

Apart from the big duality of Ice and Fire (remember that's the name of the saga, so I guess it has a big importance), I don't know how to account for Bran's and the childrens magic. If I had to guess (lot's of guessing going on, I know), I'd say it's the inner magic of all things living.

And what about the God with Many Faces...
Saso Alauf
58. JimmyO
I found a plausible explanation for the unpredictability of the seasons. An intermittant star. If the star was old it could be intermittant enough that a lull in it's emission could be low enough to cause a planet wide dip in temperatures. If the lull was low enough and long enough then it could account for the long night that was mentioned.

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