The Changing of the Seasons

The Changing of the Seasons

Photograph by Jinjiaji


They say that the only constant is change—and nowhere is this more evident than in the seasons and cyclical rhythm of nature. But what happens when even those become undependable?

As I write these words, in early January at 1,500 feet in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the sap is running from the maple trees. It’s not supposed to be running—sugaring season, when people across the state tap the trees to produce the country’s biggest crop of syrup, shouldn’t happen until the end of February, running perhaps into April. It takes nights when the temperature drops below freezing and days when it rises well above it to get the sap flowing. But that’s the kind of weather we’ve been having: a crazy warm spell punctuated by one rainstorm after another.


Meanwhile, in Europe, some ski slopes are shut down—some lifts are carrying mountain bikers up to the summits instead. That’s because of a heatwave that scientists have called “the most extreme climatological event in European history,” which brought record-high temperatures on New Year’s Day to eight nations: Poland broke its record for the month by 6 AM, and the temperature just kept rising. I tuned in to watch a cross-country ski race in the mountains of Switzerland, and it was conducted on a narrow ribbon of man-made snow wending through green forests and fields.


Neither of these things are a matter of life and death. I love to make maple syrup with my neighbors—I love the feeling of snowshoeing between trees and gathering buckets and the sweet smell that hovers above the evaporator. And I love to cross-country ski—to have a time each year when friction disappears, when I can slide across the face of the earth, graceful in a way that I usually am not. But if they disappeared, few people would die. They aren’t like the savage storms, the searing wildfires, the spreading diseases that are the most brutal face of global warming. If you want to know why we must change, and fast, then think about India last spring or China last summer, when unprecedented heat waves made life deadly and desperate for hundreds of millions of people. Or think about Pakistan last fall when a flood—maybe the biggest flood since Noah—covered a third of the nation in water. And remember that each person in those places had done relatively little to cause the climate crisis, unlike the Vermonters or Europeans who have been pouring carbon into the air for centuries. In moral terms, the loss of northern winters may be a kind of penance for our sins, and in practical terms it’s survivable.


Still, I think that the collapse of reliable seasons—the sense that you can’t count on or predict what the world will be like by looking at the calendar—is a deep and under-discussed part of the climate predicament. The sense that certain things happen at certain times of the year is deeply ingrained in most humans—in our economies and also in our psyches—and when those patterns can’t be relied on, the result is a kind of low-grade sadness and a kind of unmoored fretfulness.

A medium sized white, mossy rock sits in the center of smaller rocks on a wet sand bed.
Photograph by Sirui Ma

Nearer the equator, seasons don’t operate the way they do in Vermont, but they exist nonetheless—or at least they used to. In the Horn of Africa—Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia—the rains are supposed to come twice a year, once in March, April, and May and then again in October, November, and December. But the last five “rainy” seasons have been dry—the longest and deepest drought ever measured in the area. In Somalia alone, the drought has forced 1.3 million people to abandon their farms and migrate to camps. Tens of millions are relying on outside food: the UN projects that a famine (the technical measure is that more than 30% of children are suffering from severe malnutrition) will be widespread by April without more aid. As one researcher said, “We are extremely concerned that deaths over the course of the prolonged 2020-2023 drought could exceed that of the 2011-2012 famine in Somalia,” a stretch that killed 260,000 of our brothers and sisters.


But behind each of those deaths there are 10 people, or 100, whose lives have been so upended that they’ve doubtless wished sometimes they too might die. They’ve been driven from the places they lived, often from the nomadic communities that have followed the grass with their flocks for eons. The predictable thing in their lives—that the rains would come spring and fall—has vanished, and with it has vanished all order. And why? Historical data showed that “human-caused warming of the Indian Ocean leads to an increase of rainfall over the sea, which in turn adds energy to the atmosphere…[which] could create a weather pattern that reduces the flow of moisture onshore and bring dry air down over the African continent.” As the team’s lead researcher, Chris Funk of the University of California at Santa Barbara, explained, “We can be quite certain that the decline in rainfall has been substantial and will continue to be. The 15% decrease every 20 to 25 years is likely to continue.”


That is, normal is never coming back. But at what point do societies accept that? And how? Every assumption in these places is tied to the orderly progression of the agricultural calendar: if you measure your wealth in goats, at what point do you stop hoping that it’s going to get good for goats again? It’s not that different, psychologically, from running a ski resort. You’ve invested huge sums in chairlifts and condos, at what point do you decide that it wasn’t a bad couple of years but that it’s now a bad bet?

A field of orange flowers and tall brush are hazily lit by the sunlight.
Photograph by Jeremy Everett

The seasons are written into our moods. Anyone who has been in India in the weeks before the monsoon finally arrives has felt the tension and the loo, the hot dry winds that precede the rains, as the temperature mounts towards the unbearable. Police report increased levels of violence, as petty arguments grow…heated. Then the deluge comes. The relief and the joy are overwhelming. (Especially this past year, after those unrelenting months of record heat.) But climate change is making the monsoons more erratic, with longer dry stretches and then extreme downpours—a month’s rainfall in a day. The tension lingers.


Just as it does in the American West, where “fire season,” which used to be a discrete window in the late summer and early fall, can now stretch pretty much all year. The fires are far bigger than in the past, and they correlate with years when snow melts early in the mountains. Even good spring rains often just set up the next conflagration: if they’re followed by summer drought, then the flush of green just burns all the more dramatically once it has dried. So Westerners are always looking over one shoulder. And not just those who live out in the woods: in city after city, weeks now pass when mayors tell people to stay inside lest they breathe too much smoke.


Indeed, summer—the season of relaxation, idleness, ease—is increasingly changing its character. It’s becoming, in many parts of the world, the season to shelter from, to wait out until the autumn arrives and cooling begins.

If we’re confused by all of this, we’re not the only ones: plants appear too early in the spring, fooled by bursts of heat, only to die if frost returns; animal migrations increasingly find themselves mismatched against the blossoming of their food crops. But one hopes that only human beings can feel the mild dread that goes with it. Things are out of season. If you’re an athlete, you can train for years to run an Olympic marathon, and then when the big day comes, it’s simply too hot, with the fittest people in the world collapsing by the roadside. (Of the last 21 sites for the Winter Games, scientists predict only four will have enough snow to host the competitions by 2050.) Holidays are one way we track the progress of the year, but they’re becoming unmoored from their expected weather. The great Thanksgiving anthem “Over the River and through the Woods” comes from a poem (“The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day”) published in 1844 by Lydia Maria Child, a tireless campaigner for abolition and women’s and Indigenous people’s rights. In those days, apparently, New Englanders might expect that they’d need a wise horse to pull the sleigh through “the white and drifted snow.” But I can’t remember the last time it was cold enough for a Thanksgiving hockey game on our pond.


And yet we can’t let go of our expectations, at least not easily. We have what scientists call a “normalcy bias,” a deep desire that whatever crisis we’re experiencing will go away—a desire that often translates into profound inaction. If I tweet out any example of our absurd crisis—say, a heatwave that crushes old records—someone will immediately tweet back, “It gets hot in summer, duh.” Our hope against hope can be painfully strong, and it can lead us to neglect the steps we should be taking because they’re an acknowledgement of the loss we’re experiencing.


The only thing worse is what will inevitably come next: a loss of expectation, as the baseline changes so profoundly that our old memories of “normal” eventually disappear. (Many of us will take them to the grave, but that’s only a matter of time.) In that world, an endless mud season instead of winter won’t seem shocking and upsetting—but it will still be mud season, not the glory that some of us were lucky enough to once know. People may become adjusted again, but adjusted to a degraded Earth.


It has begun to snow fitfully outside this afternoon, an inch or so of white fluff after three days of rain. But enough to fool the eye, and with it the heart. Not the head, but the head may be the least of it.

A person stands far away in the center of a cluster of trees on a snow packed mountain.
Photograph by Frédéric Tougas

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “The Changing of the Seasons.”

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