July 15, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
Unseasonable weather; unseasonable climate? Facts, fictions and fantasies
I have just come back from a place in Dorset that my husband’s family has visited every summer for the last forty years or so and that I have visited for the last twenty. I sometimes needed to take and wear an anorak. This has changed and I have been wearing it more often over the last five years or so, but never as much as this year. Whether this very casually observed ‘trend’ indicates general changes in weather patterns, I leave to others to decide. So much for the anecdotal part of this blog….
Extreme weather on the news
When we came back from holiday on Saturday (14 July), I glanced at a few newspapers, magazines and twitter attachments. There was a lot of talk about extreme (weird, volatile, freak, on steroids etc.) weather (droughts, floods, wildfires) and arguments for and against local changes in weather patterns being linked to global changes in climate patterns (The Guardian, here and here and here. New Scientist here, CNN here, China Daily here, and many more). I even read about a new science called “probabilistic event attribution”.
There was also a lot of talk about ‘unseasonable’ weather (in the US it was unseasonably warm and dry, in the UK unseasonably cold and wet etc). In the British context this meant complaining not so much about the fact that the weather was changeable, which is entirely predictable and the standard conversational gambit here in the UK, but that, currently, it is too predictable, meaning it has been raining off and on since around April. As a leader in The Times expressed it (14 July, p. 2): “The British climate is supposed to be unpredictable. At the moment, it is anything but. If sustained sunshine is too much to ask for, most of us would settle for a little bit of fickle.” So, if we can’t even predict the unpredictable any longer, what are we to do?
This made me think about ‘seasons’ and what it would mean if we could now longer rely on seasons to plan our lives (and holidays and what to wear on holiday, and, more seriously, what impact this would have on climate mitigation, adaptation, food security, insurance cover, risk management, war and peace [subscription required], etc.). Again, I want to leave the discussion of whether weather/climate has become or is going to be chaotic in the formal sense of the term to others. However, what if it was already chaotic or was becoming chaotic and therefore entirely unpredictable, especially in terms of seasonal changes? What would the implications be?
When seasons seize to function
Now, one way to investigate ‘what if’ scenarios around seasons, un-seasons or non-seasons would be to write or read sci-fi stories, climate change novels or even what has been called cli-fi novels. Such stories allow authors and readers to engage with issues and problems related to changes in climate on fictional planets or on planet earth. It seems that in classic sci-fi tales, as one forum member, noted: “the planets depicted … are often single climate planets.
- The forest moon of Endor
- The desert planet of Dune
- The desert planet of Tatooine
- The desert planet of Vulcan
- The outer planets in Firefly all appeared to be mostly desert (suspiciously like California desert).
- The inner planets in Firefly were all temperate or tropical.
- The icy Breen homeworld
- The icy Andorian homeworld
- The icy Frost Giant planet”
This is interesting, as I was looking, in a sense, not for stories about mono-climatic planets but planets with multiple chaotic climates. There are also some speculations about a world with no seasons, mostly linked to the earth’s tilt. And there are of course novels exploring the implications climatic changes, beginning, it seems with two novels by J. G. Ballard published in the 1960s entitled The Drought and The Drowned World respectively. A whole list of climate change novels has been compiled by Gordon van Gelder, and a good summary of plots and tropes (which are still mostly the drought-ridden or drowned world) used in climate change novels can be found here. There are of course also climate change films or movies, such as The Day After Tomorrow, and even climate change games.
Climate chaos in fiction
When looking at these summaries, I began to wonder whether there really are fictional tales of whatever medium or genre that explore alien planets or our planet where seasons are not only irrevocable changed or absent but have become unstable, chaotic and unpredictable, that is to say, not so much post-catastrophic or post-apocalyptic novels, but rather novels dealing with the jitters of climatic conditions before a potential tipping point. I have the impression that there may be a bit of an imagination deficit here, unless readers can put me right! Or do writers of fictions find it difficult to write about the entirely unpredictable?
Game of Thrones
Despite these caveats, one can find some explorations of chaotic climate, for example in the popular Game of Thrones. As Wikipedia points out: “Game of Thrones is an American medieval fantasy television series created for HBO by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. It is an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin‘s series of fantasy novels, the first of which is titled A Game of Thrones.” The sentence ‘winter is coming’, related to the title of the first series, has become an internet meme. George Dvorsky at io9 has explored “5 Scientific Explanations for Game of Thrones’ Messed-Up Seasons”, which range from a wobbly planetary tilt to oceans, currents and wind and a combination of all factors. The ‘current’ most often evoked during this rainy British summer is the jet stream. So what about a novel dealing with changes in the jet stream that we could enjoy reading on a long rainy day?
In the meantime, I have been told by various teenagers that I really should read Dune, although the sheer size of the novel somehow deters me (and I have to admit that I am not an avid sci-fi reader). Dune, says Wikipedia, “is a 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. … Dune is frequently cited as the world’s best-selling science fiction novel and was the start of the Dune saga.”
Dune certainly seems to contain a thought-provoking message on climate and climate variability that’s worth thinking about again after almost half a century has gone by since Herbert published his novel. Here is a quote from the third book “Children of Dune”: “Limits of survival are set by climate, those long drifts of change which a generation may fail to notice. And it is the extremes of climate which set the pattern. Lonely, finite humans may observe climactic provinces, fluctuations of annual weather and, occasionally may observe such things as ‘This year is a colder year then I’ve ever known.’ Such things are sensible. But humans are seldom alerted to the shifting average through a great span of years. And it is precisely in this alerting that humans learn how to survive on any planet. They must learn climate.” So, perhaps, when the rain starts up again, I might give it a try and read at least the first book.
Photo: Weather-front over Poole (Dorset)
On climate change related research funded by the ESRC, please consult our website
Reagarding monoclimatic sci-fi : I wonder whether this is because the climate is generally a backdrop to a story and should not take too big a part in the tale – and also that a variable climate becomes a very arbitrary way of driving along a story.
Regarding climate change : Something that causes me confusion is when reporters say, for example, that rainfall has been the highest for 100 years – when what they really mean is that it is the ighest since records began 100 years ago (which is a very different proposition)
This is a good point. You probably need some stable background against which to paint your fictional picture of a world. As for the announcements about rainfall etc. I think they sometimes say ‘since records began’ and sometimes not; saying ‘the highest for 100 years’ is probably a shortcut that is sometimes used under time pressure – at least I hope so!
When you read Dune — and it really is the dominant ecological novel of the kind you are looking for — you should also read the appendices. Frank Herbert went into a great deal of detail, comparable to the background notes for the Lord of the Rings. Oh — and do NOT go into any Dune series novel that was not written by *Frank* Herbert. (No, not even the ones that are co-written by his son Brian.) They are nothing but adventure stories, and their authors completely lack understanding of the original series.
As to your speculation about a lack of imagination in some directions: very observant — and it goes much, much further than simply failure to understand the daily role of climate in our lives, and to appreciate what changing climate will mean. Consider it yet another symptom of a much deeper syndrome: which could be described very loosely as a deliberate refusal to look, lest the looking show (or even cause) something unwanted. You may have seen a similar effect when a thread commenter says something others do not want to hear, and is consequently accused of causing the effect rather than simply observing it. That pattern has been around for a very long time, but our modern version of it kicked in around 1979 and has only become stronger ever since.
Dune is now on my bedside table. Let’s see how things go! Interesting comment on the lack or refusal of imagination. But why 1979?
In passing: the “other” London, in Canada, is currently in severe drought conditions, with daily temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius.
[…] me from writing blog posts in the past! So what I’ll do today is explore the contours of my gap in knowledge of all things cli-fi. Lots has been written about this genre already, in particular on blogs, in magazine, such as Time […]