Explaining the Seasons on ‘Game of Thrones’

If you haven’t yet watched the television series Game of Thrones or read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books on which the show is based, I would urge you to get started (unless you are a small child, in which case I would urge you to wait a few years). The show and the books are both absolute masterpieces (although, as I alluded, definitely not for kids). I’m not usually a big fan of high fantasy, but the character and plot development of this series really pulled me in.

One of the most interesting parts of the series – maybe just for me – is the way the seasons work in Westeros and Essos, the continents explored in Game of Thrones. Winter and summer occur randomly, and can last anywhere from a couple of years to more than a decade. (Here a “year” is presumably defined by a complete rotation of the planet around the Sun, which can be discerned by the stars, rather than by one full cycle of the seasons.)

So what causes these random, multiyear seasons? Many people, George R. R. Martin included, brush off the causes as magical rather than scientific. To those people I say: you have no sense of fun.

After several lunchtime conversations with my friends from UNSW and U of T (few things are more fun than letting a group of climate scientists loose on a question like this), I think I’ve found a mechanism to explain the seasons. My hypothesis is simple, has been known to work on Earth, and satisfies all the criteria I can remember (I only read the books once and I didn’t take notes). I think that “winters” in Westeros are actually miniature ice ages, caused by the same orbital mechanisms which govern ice ages on Earth.

Glacial Cycles on Earth

First let’s look at how ice ages – the cold phases of glacial cycles – work on Earth. At their most basic level, glacial cycles are caused by gravity: the gravity of other planets in the solar system, which influence Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Three main orbital cycles, known as Milankovitch cycles, result:

  1. A 100,000 year cycle in eccentricity: how elliptical (as opposed to circular) Earth’s path around the Sun is.
  2. A 41,000 year cycle in obliquity: the degree of Earth’s axial tilt.
  3. A 26,000 year cycle in precession: what time of year the North Pole is pointing towards the Sun.

These three cycles combine to impact the timing and severity of the seasons in each hemisphere. The way they combine is not simple: the superposition of three sinusoidal functions with different periods is generally a mess, and often one cycle will cancel out the effects of another. However, sometimes the three cycles combine to make the Northern Hemisphere winter relatively warm, and the Northern Hemisphere summer relatively cool.

These conditions are ideal for glacier growth in the Northern Hemisphere. A warmer winter, as long as it’s still below freezing, will often actually cause more snow to fall. A cool summer will prevent that snow from entirely melting. And as soon as you’ve got snow that sticks around for the entire year, a glacier can begin to form.

Then the ice-albedo feedback kicks in. Snow and ice reflect more sunlight than bare ground, meaning less solar radiation is absorbed by the surface. This makes the Earth’s average temperature go down, so even less of the glacier will melt each summer. Now the glacier is larger and can reflect even more sunlight. This positive feedback loop, or “vicious cycle”, is incredibly powerful. Combined with carbon cycle feedbacks, it caused glaciers several kilometres thick to spread over most of North America and Eurasia during the last ice age.

The conditions are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere: relatively cold winters and hot summers, which cause glaciers to recede. However, at this stage in Earth’s history, most of the continents are concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere. The south is mostly ocean, where there are no glaciers to recede. For this reason, the Northern Hemisphere is the one which controls Earth’s glacial cycles.

These ice ages don’t last forever, because sooner or later the Milankovitch cycles will combine in the opposite way: the Northern Hemisphere will have cold winters and hot summers, and its glaciers will start to recede. The ice-albedo feedback will be reversed: less snow and ice means more sunlight is absorbed, which makes the planet warmer, which means there is less snow and ice, and so on.

Glacial Cycles in Westeros?

I propose that Westeros (or rather, the unnamed planet which contains Westeros and Essos and any other undiscovered continents in Game of Thrones; let’s call it Westeros-world) experiences glacial cycles just like Earth, but the periods of the underlying Milankovitch cycles are much shorter – on the order of years to decades. This might imply the presence of very large planets close by, or a high number of planets in the solar system, or even multiple other solar systems which are close enough to exert significant gravitational attraction. As far as I know, all of these ideas are plausible, but I encourage any astronomers in the audience to chime in.

Given the climates of various regions in Game of Thrones, it’s clear that they all exist in the Northern Hemisphere: the further north you go, the colder it gets. The southernmost boundary of the known world is probably somewhere around the equator, because it never starts getting cold again as you travel south. Beyond that, the planet is unexplored, and it’s plausible that the Southern Hemisphere is mainly ocean. The concentration of continents in one hemisphere would allow Milankovitch cycles to induce glacial cycles in Westeros-world.

The glacial periods (“winter”) and interglacials (“summer”) would vary in length – again, on the scale of years to decades – and would appear random: the superposition of three different sine functions has an erratic pattern of peaks and troughs when you zoom in. Of course, the pattern of season lengths would eventually repeat itself, with a period equal to the least common multiple of the three Milankovitch cycle periods. But this least common multiple could be so large – centuries or even millennia – that the seasons would appear random on a human timescale. It’s not hard to believe that the people of Westeros, even the highly educated maesters, would fail to recognize a pattern which took hundreds or thousands of years to repeat.

Of course, within each glacial cycle there would be multiple smaller seasons as the planet revolved around the Sun – the way that regular seasons work on Earth. However, if the axial tilt of Westeros-world was sufficiently small, these regular seasons could be overwhelmed by the glacial cycles to the point where nobody would notice them.

There could be other hypotheses involving fluctuations in solar intensity, frequent volcanoes shooting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, or rapid carbon cycle feedbacks. But I think this one is the most plausible, because it’s known to happen on Earth (albeit on a much longer timescale). Can you find any holes? Please go nuts in the comments.