5 Scientific Explanations for Game of Thrones‘ Messed-Up Seasons
We real-world Earthlings take for granted that the seasons will change on schedule. Our planet's clockwork-like seasonality allows us to predict the passage of time with complete precision, and we can always be sure that spring is right around the corner. The same cannot be said, however, for the unlucky inhabitants of George R. R. Martin's Westeros.
Why is this? And what are the possible scientific explanations for Westeros' long, unpredictable seasons?
A unique feature of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire world is its extreme seasonal variability. Summers and winters have an indeterminate length, leaving its citizens wondering how long the current season will last — and how long they may have to endure the next one. At the opening of Game of Thrones Season Two, the good folk of the Seven Kingdoms learn that the summer, which has lasted seven years, is coming to a close, and with it, the onset of what could be a very long and bitter winter.
This makes for some pretty great fantasy, but is this actually possible? And is there any chance that variable-length seasons as portrayed in Game of Thrones could eventually happen on Earth?
The answer is yes. And in fact, there are at least five scientific explanations that can help explain what's going on in the Seven Kingdoms.
1. A wobbly planetary tilt
Earth's seasons are caused by the tilt of its axis of rotation - a 23.4° offset of the axis to be exact. The direction of the Earth's rotational axis stays nearly fixed in space despite the fact that we're also revolving around the Sun. As a result, depending on the Earth's location during its orbit, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, causing us to experience summer. Half a year later, when the Earth is on the opposite side of the Sun, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, resulting in — yes, you guessed it — winter. The seasons are, of course, reversed for the southern hemisphere.
The seasons themselves are the result of shifting daylight exposures. In temperate and polar regions, the seasons are marked by changes in the intensity of sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface. The less sunlight, the colder it is. Makes sense.
It's important to note that the Earth's axis of rotation is extremely stable. If it wasn't, the Earth's tilt would be very wobbly, resulting in inconsistent and unpredictable seasonal lengths like the ones portrayed in Game of Thrones.
But thankfully we have the Moon. Or more specifically, we have a very large moon. The Earth's moon is disproportionately large compared to other planetary satellites in the solar system. And without it, there might not be any seasons, or the seasons could be very different than what we're used to. The Moon has the effect of stabilizing the tilt of the Earth's rotational axis. Without it, Earth would be a wobbly mess.
Now, back to Game of Thrones — in the episode "The Kingsroad," we learn that Westeros has at least one moon. It's very possible, therefore, that they have a very small or distant moon, that is causing a variable tilt in their planet's rotational axis.
It's interesting to note that, according to legend, Westeros used to have two moons, but "one wandered too close to the sun and it cracked from the heat" pouring out a thousand thousand dragons. Well, dragons aside, it's conceivable that some kind of cataclysmic celestial event could have wiped out their second moon, which would have thrown their planet's rotational axis out of whack.
As for our situation here on Earth, we're not completely immune from this problem. If our moon got knocked out of its current orbit, say by a massive object or a nuclear explosion, we would be in quite a bit of trouble.
2. An extremely elongated orbit
It's a commonly held myth that the Earth's seasons are caused by its changing proximity to the Sun. This makes sense from an intuitive perspective; the Earth is in an elliptical orbit around the Sun, which would indicate that the further it is away from the sun, the colder it would be. Hence, Earth's location at the aphelion point (the farthest point from the Sun) would indicate winter.
But this is not the case. Earth may be in an elliptical orbit, but it's practically a circle. Our distance from the Sun at the aphelion point has virtually no impact on the Earth's climate, though some experts believe that it may account for the southern hemisphere's moderate winters.
Now, that said, not all planets have a near-circular orbit like the Earth's. Mercury, for example, has the largest orbital eccentricity of any planet in the solar system at 0.2056 (compared to the Earth's 0.0167). The closer to zero the orbit is, the closer it is to being circular.
In Game of Thrones, it's very possible that Westeros has a very eccentric or elongated orbit. Unlike the Earth, their world could be extremely far from its sun at the aphelion point, which would explain the long and severe winters. Conversely, during perihelion, the planet would have a prolonged summer. Our very own Mars experiences this kind of thing; it undergoes wide temperature variations and violent dust storms every year, when it reaches perihelion.
The problem with this theory, however, is it doesn't explain the unpredictability of the seasons. The citizens of the Seven Kingdoms would still experience consistent yearly cycles and fixed length seasons, even if they would be longer than what we're used to here on Earth. So this theory, at least on its own, is not a very good explanation.
3. A complex Milankovitch cycle
The Earth is subject to some significantly longer orbital and axial trends. Variations in orbital eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth's orbit can determine climactic patterns that can take tens of thousands of years to play out. It takes about 26,000 years for Earth's axis to complete one full cycle of precession (the change in the orientation of the rotational axis of a rotating body), while at the same time the Earth is orbiting at a variable speed. The combined effect of these two phenomena creates a 21,000-year astronomical season. This is what is referred to as a "Milankovitch cycle."
This extreme long-term seasonality slowly changes the climate on Earth, typically resulting in colder winters in the Northern Hemisphere. It's thought that Milankovitch cycles are what's to blame for Earth's past ice ages. And anthropogenic global warming notwithstanding, current models suggest that the current warm climate may last another 50,000 years.
All planets have their own Milankovitch cycle which affect the weather and seasons in unique ways. Mars's polar caps vary in size on account of orbital instability related to a latent Milankovitch cycle. And Saturn's moon Titan has a 60,000 year cycle that changes the location of its methane lakes.
Looking at the situation in Game of Thrones, it's possible that Westeros's Milankovitch cycle is quick and complex. If this is the case, their seasons would be subject to variations in both length and severity — exactly the sort of thing that is seen in the series. Such long-term trends could be predicted when analyzing the physics of it, but it's nothing the planet's medieval-stage observers could measure or anticipate.
4. Oceans, currents, and winds
Any given region's climate is profoundly influenced by such factors as its latitude and proximity to large bodies of water. Take the South Pole, for example. It is in the middle of Antarctica, and a considerable distance from the moderating influence of the southern oceans. The North Pole, on the other hand, is in the Arctic Ocean, and its temperature extremes are buffered by the water. The result is that the South Pole is consistently colder during the Southern winter compared to the North Pole during the Northern winter.
Ocean currents and prevailing winds can also have an impact on climate, and they themselves are subject to cyclical variations. Currents like El Niño and La Niña impact on regional climates across timescales as long as five or more years. The power of Canada's warm Chinook winds are largely unpredictable, but their impact on the Prairies is significant.
The Seven Kingdoms may be subject to these sorts of long-term weather trends. The geography of their world may be considerably different than Earth's. Westeros may contain larger oceans, bigger mountains, stronger currents and more powerful prevailing winds — all of which would combine to create fairly unpredictable and long-term weather trends.
It's worth noting that global warming and rising ocean levels on Earth are stunting the ocean currents. Some experts believe that this could indeed result in a new ice age.
5. A combination of all factors
It's also possible, of course, that it's through a combination of some or all of these factors thatGame of Thrones' seasonal variability can be explained. As shown, seasonality and climate are clearly the result of many factors.
Regardless, it's time to bundle up. Winter might be coming.
This year's summer movies just won't let up. There's Joss Whedon's Avengers, Chris Nolan's third Batman film, and Ridley Scott's long-awaited return to space horror. Plus maybe a dozen other movies that look like they could be totally fantastic. Here's our complete list of 32 movies coming out between now and September — including superheroes, aliens, time travel and the end of the world!
Minor spoilers ahead...
The Sound of My Voice(April 27) The Sundance 2011 hit finally reaches theaters. It's an artsy tale about a cult founded by a woman who claims to be from the future, from Another Earth co-writer and star Brit Marling. LikeAnother Earth, this is a very character-focused, intimate story with a huge science fiction backdrop.
The Raven (April 27) There's a serial killer who's killing people according to the works of pioneering horror author Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) — and only Poe can stop him. Quoth the Raven: WTF! Only really notable because it's the closest we'll ever get to the show about Poe being a detective that failed to get on the air last year.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits (April 27) The latest stop-motion animated movie from the makers of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, and it's easily as good as their earlier works. It's honestly much better if you think of it as being called Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists, the title of the book and the U.K. version. Basically, pirates and Charles Darwin, in Victorian England.
The Avengers (May 4) The culmination of four years of Marvel superhero movies, this film brings Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Incredible Hulk and S.H.I.E.L.D. together to fight Loki and his alien army. By all accounts, director Joss Whedon brings together this huge spandex mish-mash with surprising grace, and delivers a nice, craftsmanlike film. We can't wait.
Dark Shadows (May 11) Tim Burton reunites with Johnny Depp for their 500th collaboration — a remake of the 1966-1971 soap opera featuring vampire Barnabas Collins, who wakes up in the early 1970s. Judging from the trailers, Burton has gone all-out comedy with this version, which could turn out to be an excellent choice — if he can recapture the old Beetlejuice spirit. Fingers crossed.
Battleship (May 18) Already out in the UK, and getting mixed reviews. It's a movie based on a board game, in which aliens come down to Earth and imprison a bunch of naval vessels inside a dome, causing them to play a deadly game... of Battleship. By all accounts, it's pretty similar to the Michael Bay Transformersfilms, so if you liked those, you'll like this.
Hysteria (May 18) A romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator. Hugh Dancy plays a doctor in Victorian England who's torn between the staid values of the medical establishment and his progressive new ideas. And then he gets a job working with a specialist who treats women with "hysteria," and develops an electrifying new treatment. Meanwhile, he becomes entranced with his partner's daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who's a budding feminist.
Lovely Molly (May 18) A woman moves into her dead father's house, and starts being haunted by painful memories — and that's before a malevolent presence starts targeting her. By all accounts, this is a nice change from the usual "haunted house" movies, because Molly is working class (she's a trucker's wife and mall cleaning woman) and she's also recovering from drug and alcohol abuse, and desperately trying to stay sober.
Chernobyl Diaries (May 25) The latest Oren Peli horror film isn't, strictly speaking, "found footage" — although it still has a very DIY feel to it. Six young people take an "extreme" tour of Pripyat, a town that's been deserted since that famous 1980s nuclear disaster. Except that they get trapped there, and maybe it's not quite as deserted as they'd thought... because something is hunting them.
Men in Black 3 (May 25) Will Smith is back as Agent J, and this time he has to travel back to the 1960s to save his partner (Tommy Lee Jones/Josh Brolin) from being killed in the past by an alien (Jemaine Clement). On the plus side, the time travel element should open up some new storylines. Plus there's Emma Thompson. On the minus side, they apparently had no script during some of the production, and it was kind of a mess. But it could still be fun.
Piranha 3DD (June 1) This was supposed to come out last summer, wasn't it? This sequel to Piranha 3D has the jokiest title of any movie this year, which also explains succinctly the main reason why anybody will want to see this monster fish epic. You can't blame a movie for knowing its audience.
Snow White and the Huntsman (June 1) The second of the year's Snow White movies could actually benefit from the failure of Mirror Mirror. This one features a more "badass" Snow White, played by Twilight's Kristen Stewart (yes, I know). And the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) teaches Snow White the art of war, so she and her dwarves can overthrow the Queen (Charlize Theron). Dwarves include Nick Frost and Bob Hoskins, which is automatic win.
Prometheus (June 8) Even in a summer with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, this might be the most hotly awaited film for science fiction fans. Sir Ridley Scott returns to science fiction, and to the world of 1979's Alien, for a horrifying, unsettling new adventure. Every frame that we've seen from this movie thus far looks like it could be your favorite new artwork, and it also looks like it brings a massive new ambition to expanding the universe we glimpsed in Alien.
Safety Not Guaranteed(June 8) It's that quirky indie comedy about three magazine employees who go to interview a guy who placed a classified ad seeking someone to go back in time with him. "I have only done this once before," the ad warns. Based on an actual newspaper ad that caused an internet sensation back in 2005. The trailer looks pretty great and clever, in that "quirky indie" way.
The Woman in the Fifth(June 15) Ethan Hawke stars in the adaptation of a novel about a writer and professor who goes to live in Paris, then falls on hard times and gets ensnared in some dirty business. It's basically your standard "Ethan Hawke goes to Paris" movie that we've all seen before — except that it also turns into a freaky ghost story, at least judging from the novel.
Extraterrestrial (June 15) Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo is back, with another weird little science fiction movie. Sadly, it's not the one he was planning to make about the guy who builds a ramp to jump his car onto a UFO. But it does have aliens — basically, a guy has a one-night stand with a woman who's out of his league, and just when things are getting awkward, aliens invade and everybody has to stay indoors. This movie hits select theaters in the U.S. (including your town, if you register via Tugg.com) on June 15.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (June 22) Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch) returns to vampires — with a strange alt-history take in which Abraham Lincoln not only freed the slaves, he slew the vamps as well. It's written by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his book of the same name. With Bekmambetov involved, the action should at least look pretty sweet.
Brave (June 22) Pixar hopefully returns to form after Cars 2, with the story of Merida, a princess who defies an age-old custom and unleashes chaos on the kingdom. Everything we've seen thus far on this film looks totally gorgeous, including some beautiful shots of the Scottish countryside. Seeing Pixar tackle fairytales, and a female lead character, should be ultra-rewarding. Plus Kevin McKidd voices Lord MacGuffin and his son, the Young MacGuffin.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (June 22) It's Melancholia, only it's a fun romantic comedy. Steve Carrel stars as a guy who connects with a young woman (Keira Knightley) and searches for his childhood sweetheart, before an asteroid destroys the world. The trailer is pretty hilarious, especially the bit where Patton Oswalt explains that the impending doom of the planet means that women will sleep with him without worrying about diseases — or even whether you're related to them.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (June 28) So yeah, nobody was especially impressed with the first G.I. Joe. But the good news is, this time around it's directed by Jon M. Chu, who created the insane dance-superhero webseries The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. Plus it looks like this film picks up right where the first one left off, with the evil Zartan impersonating the U.S. President — and a movie about an evil president is always welcome.
The Amazing Spider-Man(July 3) A mere five years after Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy concluded, Spidey's being rebooted — but at least the new director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) seems likely to bring a very different feel than Raimi. And non-organic web-shooters and non-CG swinging seem like an improvement. Plus a more quippy Peter Parker. The trailers we've seen so far look surprisingly cool. And yet, do we need a new Spidey origin? Especially one which focuses so much on the mystery of Peter Parker's parents? We'll see.
Ted (July 13) The Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane directs his first big-screen movie. Mark Wahlberg plays John, who wished for his teddy bear to come to life when he was a kid. Now, John's a grown-up — and his sentient teddy bear is still following him around, hindering his attempts to have a normal life. Mila Kunis plays the love interest, and MacFarlane voices the teddy bear.
Red Lights (July 13) It's pretty much your standard "paranormal investigators butt heads with a man who claims to be a psychic" movie — except that the paranormal investigators are Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy. And the psychic is played by Robert De Niro. Sadly, we called it"this year's biggest Sundance letdown." Apparently it's De Niro's "Not the bees" movie.
The Dark Knight Rises(July 20) The third movie in Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy, this one features Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Tom Hardy as Bane. By the look of things, we'll be seeing an older, less assured Batman, and a Gotham that's gotten complacent after eight years of peace after the death of Harvey Dent. We've already seen a football field implode, and it sounds like that's just the beginning of the insanity.
Ruby Sparks (July 25) A young writer struggles with writers' block, until he starts inventing his ideal woman so he can write about her... until one day, she appears in the flesh in his apartment, apparently called into being by the force of his imagination. From the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, this film looks pretty fascinating. (Thanks to nekowrites for the reminder!)
Neighborhood Watch (July 27) A zany comedy in which Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill and Vince Vaughn are suburban dads who join a neighborhood watch group to get some excitement — only to find themselves the only line of defense against an alien invasion. More importantly, though, the film features The IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade in a major role. And it's apparently trying for a Ghostbusters vibe. Fingers crossed!
Total Recall (August 3) Colin Farrell stars in this quasi-remake of the 1990 Schwarzenegger classic, in which the hero never goes to Mars. By all accounts, Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard) is trying to get closer to the Philip K. Dick source material, and delve more into the weirdness of not knowing who you really are. At the very least, let's hope there's some good action sequences in a cool-looking future dystopia.
The Awakening (August 10) This movie came out in the U.K. last fall, but it's finally getting a U.S. release. It's another "supernatural debunker confronts real supernatural phenomena" film — except that it's set in 1921 and the debunker is a woman, Florence Cartwright (Rebecca Hall). It's gottensome good reviews, and the heroine wears an awesome Captain Jack Harkness coat.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green (August 15) The creeptastic Disney movie about a childless couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) who write down their wish for a child and bury it in the yard... and then their dream child shows up, already aged 10. From an idea by Frank Zappa's son Ahmet Zappa. It honestly looks kind of disturbing, but it's clearly trying to be heartwarming — and maybe it'll be cooler than the trailers look.
ParaNorman (August 17) In the latest stop-motion animated film from the studio behind Coraline, Norman can speak with the dead — which comes in handy after zombies start attacking. He also has to save his town from an ancient witch's curse.
The Apparition (August 24) A supernatural presence gets unleashed during a college parapsychology experiment, and starts haunting a young couple (Ashley Greene and Sebastian Stan.) They have to call on a supernatural expert — played by Draco Malfoy himself, Tom Felton — to help deal with it. But it may already be too late to save them! The combination of "college parapsychology experiment" and "Draco Malfoy, ghost hunter" seems like a promising one.
7500 (August 31) Get these motherfuckin' ghosts off this motherfuckin' plane! Seriously, if Samuel L. Jackson doesn't at least get a cameo where he says that, we'll feel cheated. Basically, in this film, Jason Stackhouse is on a flight over the Pacific when a supernatural presence invades the plane. Director Takashi Shimizu previously made seven of the Grudge movies.
The Possession (August 31) Previously known as Dybbuk Box, this movie has been delayed for ages and ages. And yes, it's a welcome addition to the tiny genre of "Jewish horror," alongsidethat Odette Yustman movie a couple years ago. A young girl buys a box at a yard sale, unaware the box holds a malevolent presence. This August, Yiddish is the language of terror. This film features Jeffrey Dean Morgan, so you can pretend it's a Supernatural prequel.
By now we all know the story of how there is actually a guy named Kenny Kramer who lived across the hall from Larry David and who became the inspiration for Michael Richards’ character in Seinfeld. But there are plenty of other fictional characters on television and in movies that are secretly based actual people who live among us (or once did). Some of these muses are pretty surprising! In fact, you may want to ask all your writer friends if you’re in any of their screenplays and start demanding royalties now, because if their character ends up as popular as the ones we’ve rounded up are, you’re definitely going to want a cut of the dough.
Abed Nadir from Community, based on Abed Gheith
Gheith, a friend of Community showrunner Dan Harmon, has worked on many series for Channel 101, a monthly film festival in Los Angeles that puts out serialized five-minute television shows. He met Harmon through his work there, and even auditioned for the part of Abed, which eventually went to Danny Pudi. Gheith is happy to see the show succeed, though as he toldComedy Central in an interview, there are differences between him and the character: “I think I’m a bit more aware socially. I can tell when people are uncomfortable… It seems like the one on the show has no idea that he’s around other people.” Judging from last week’s amazing Abed-centric episode, we’d have to agree with him there.
Lucy from 50 First Dates, based on Michelle Philpots
50 First Dates seemed so unbelievable, didn’t it? How likely is it that someone would have her short-term memory erased to the point that she was living the same day every day? Well, don’t voice those concerns to Michelle Philpots, a British woman who lost her short-term memory in 1994 as a result of two car crashes and who has to wake up every morning to a wealth of post-it notes telling her what to expect. She doesn’t even remember her marriage to a man named Ian, although, as he told the Daily Mail, “I’ve known her for 25 years so I am lucky we met before she had the accidents because she can remember me. Luckily we have lots of photos to remind her, otherwise she would forget it all.” Well, that’s a little less creepy than the end of the Adam Sandler movie, we guess.
Lieutenant Patrick “Maverick” Mitchell from Top Gun, inspired by Randy “Duke” Cunningham
If you’re from California, you might know Duke Cunningham as a former congressman from your state. However, before that he was in the US Navy for 20 years, and he and his Radar Incercept Officer were the only two Navy Aces in the entire Vietnam War. Some of their maneuvers directly inspired the scene in Top Gun where Maverick defeats Jester, and later an enemy fighter, by using his brakes. Well played, Duke! Too bad you support Newt Gingrich.
Allison Dubois from Medium, based on (a real person named) Allison Dubois
No offense to Patricia Arquette, but considering what the character’s real-life inspiration looks like, they could have at least gotten her a cooler haircut. I mean, look at those Rogue-style streaks! That is way more awesome than the mom-bob the TV Dubois has. Skeptics will complain about the veracity of the real Dubois‘s claims to be a medium and whether or not her contributions actually affect the outcomes of the cases she’s helped with, but you can’t deny that she is cool.
Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers, based on Donald Sinclair
The uptight, misanthropic hotel owner that John Cleese created for the British show Fawlty Towers was apparently inspired by a real man named Donald Sinclair, who the Monty Python gang encountered during a stay at the Gleneagles hotel in Torquay, England. Apparently, he threw Eric Idle’s suitcase over a wall in the garden because he thought it contained a bomb, and would often toss maps at the troupe. Cleese was so amused that he borrowed from the hotel owner several times; his character in Rat Race was called “Donald Sinclair” as well.
Ali G from Da Ali G Show, based on Tim Westwood
The satirical character that launched Sacha Baron Cohen’s career was actually inspired by BBC Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood, who, despite being the middle-class son of the Anglican bishop of Petersborough, speaks in a strange dialect that emulates black British hip-hop culture. Apparently the accent has confused guests on Westwood’s show in the past, including the American rapper KRS-One. Let’s hope Tim’s at least a little more informed on world events than Ali G.
The Hanson Brothers from Slap Shot, based on the Carlson Brothers
Widely regarded as one of the best hockey movies of all time (a category that is admittedly pretty small), Slap Shot featured the antics of three rough-and-tumble players who break out into fights before the national anthem is even played. They’re based on real players, the Carlson brothers from Minnesota. In fact, two of the brothers played the Hanson brothers in the film — the third was unable to due to his hockey schedule, so they replaced him with another player-turned-actor.
Don Draper from Mad Men, based on Draper Daniels
More than just Don’s namesake, Draper Daniels was a legend in the world of advertising during the ’60s, though he was based in Chicago with the firm Leo Burnett and not in New York with the rest of the Madison Avenue elite. Apparently he was much more devoted to his wife, Myrna, than Don is, too — he never cheated and even quit drinking when she asked (although the story of their marriage is more than a little disturbing in other ways).
Olivia Pope from Scandal, based on Judy Smith
The new political drama from Grey’s Anatomy show runner Shonda Rhimes is about Olivia Pope, a totally awesome crisis management expert who used to work for the president. Lawyer Judy Smith is a totally awesome crisis management expert who used to work for the president. This is not a coincidence, and did we mention that it’s totally awesome? We bet that lady’s got so many ridiculous stories about the people who run our government. In fact, let’s spend every episode trying to guess which political leader each character is based on.
Jimmy Dugan from A League of Their Own, based on Jimmie Foxx
Unlike Dugan, whose Rockford Peaches lost to the Racine Belles in A League of Their Own, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team that Foxx coached actually was beat out by the real-life Peaches in the 1952 finals. Before that, though, he was considered one of the most powerful hitters of his day, first for the Phildelphia A’s and then for the Red Sox. He was second only to Babe Ruth on the all-time runs list until he was knocked back by Willie Mays, and then even further foiled by his alleged drinking problem. Too bad he didn’t have Madonna and Geena Davis to help him break that ugly habit.