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03 November 2016

What does Science Have to Say about the Climate in Game of Thrones?

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The fantasy series Game of Thrones recently won 12 Emmy awards, bringing the total to 38 in its six seasons. A recognition for a series that has hundreds of millions of followers and multiple storylines. A complexity that is surprisingly similar to the epic Helen of Troy poem. A late coming feature is the change of seasons on Westeros, the strange planet where the action takes place. Winter is coming” is repeated over and over. But is this just imagination or is there a scientific explanation to this alien climate?

The TV series Game of Thrones is based on the unfinished saga “Song of ice and fire”, created by George R.R. Martin. Even so, both have reached a level of fame that can be considered as truly epic.

In addition to the unprecedented number of follows, there are extraordinary similarities between the storyline of Game of Thrones and the archaic epic of Helen of Troy. This story, which goes further than the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, consists of several cycles that have been broken down into different parts, but which draw a very complex tapestry about the life and death of the Achaean heroes. Incest, bestiality, fratricide, matricide, prophecy, homosexuality, drama and bravura, elements that are very common in the series, are combined in the Greek epic within an unspecified time frame, (although based on real-life), to forge stories whose echoes still reverberate in our culture, in a process that goes to and froe and which continues to generate inspiration. After all, Humanism isn’t dead, it’s just hibernating in wait of better times.

In Game of Thrones, all the events that occur, with the exception of the flash-backs, happen in a summer that would be equivalent to seven earth years, although it has been stated on several occasions that the seasons always have an uncertain duration and that their harshness is very variable. In fact, the story goes that in the past, Westeros had a winter that lasted an entire generation.

What causes seasons?

Seasons happen because the Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted on the vertical plane of its orbit around the Sun. This 23.4 degree tilt means that in summer the rays of sunlight are perpendicular, with very short periods of darkness at midday, and considerably more tilted in winter, with much longer periods of darkness. Therefore, the atmospheric warming of the land and ocean masses is at a maximum in summer and a minimum in December and January. However, the Earth is not the only planet in the Solar System where this occurs.

An extreme case is that of Neptune, whose axis is tilted almost 90 degrees. This means that it’s night and winter for half of its year (42 Earth years) and day-summer for another 42 Earth years. Mars, the half-brother of our planet, has an axis of rotation that oscillates on its equilibrium position but with slow variations that produce changes to the seasons over thousands of years, not decades, as is the case of Westeros. This isn’t the same as on Earth because the Moon, which is enormous, acts as an anchor.

Illustration 1: Cycles of Milankovitch. Credit: Wikipedia/Incredio.

The possible causes of sudden changes of seasons and climate change

Although it’s based on a fantasy series, it’s possible to speculate on the reasons behind the strange climate on Westeros from different scientific positions. One possible cause is a change to the tilt of the axis of rotation. This would lead to a change in the intensity of summer and winter, since the average temperature of the seasons would change, but the duration would not change.

Map of Westeros, the fictitious continent on which the Game of Thrones series is set / Image: Pinterest

Non-circular orbits also result in different periods of sunlight based on the position of the planet during the insolation, with less energy per square meter when the orbit is further away from the central star. This would explain the harsh winters, but not the change of duration.

In reality,  the Earth has the same phenomenologies. The Earth has a very small eccentricity which, in practice, makes its orbit circular, and it doesn’t play a significant role in the climate. However, its axis of rotation has a movement known as precession, which consists of a rotation around the vertical plane of the Earth’s revolution around the Sun, similar to a dreidel or spinning top, in a cycle of 23,000 years (further proof of the deceitfulness of astrology, because this means that the signs of the horoscope don’t correspond to our date of birth since they were defined 2,500 years ago). The orientation of the Earth’s orbit, which, as we have mentioned, is slightly elliptical, also changes, but slower. The combination of both movements result in a cycle of 21,000 years. To top it off, the tilt of the axis of rotation changes between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees, although this happens in a cycle of 41,000 years.

These cycles are collectively known as Milankovich, and they have a significant effect on the climate. It is thought that they are responsible for the appearance of glaciations. Of course, now that we have entered the Anthropocene, which is characterized by the effect of humans on the planet, we are the main cause of climate change.

The north side of the Wall /Source: Wikia

In any case, returning to the climatology of Westeros, we can come up with different combinations for the reasons that have been described, which could account for the irregular cycles of its seasons.

Meanwhile, the height of the mountain ranges, the distribution and extent of the oceans and the strong ocean currents have a determining effect on the climate. This is the case of the Gulf Stream in Scandinavia, which carries warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to northern Europe, and as a result, the northern climate is much milder than it should be based on its latitude. Changes to ocean currents result in significant climate changes.

The evolution of the Earth’s climate, which is measured by both the concentration of the CO2 gas and by average temperatures. In recent centuries this has increased in the right panels, where the vertical axis has also expanded to clearly show the extreme change that we are seeing due to the effects of industrialization.

In fact, our planet’s global warming may already be changing these currents and some climate models predict that in the long term, following a very significant increase in temperature, the final consequence will be the arrival of another Ice Age.

After all, it looks like Winter is really coming, but to our planet.

David Barrado Navascué


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