We Are Eternally Tied To the Seasons

April 15, 1999
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzMost people throughout history have not lived from day to day, except under extraordinarily stressful conditions. They have lived from season to season.

Seasons are traditionally defined by astronomical factors. The natural, yearly progression of the earth's position in relation to the sun has guided human activities related to food production, water resources, and energy needs. In the middle and higher latitudes, the seasons are determined by hot and cold temperatures, whereas in the tropical regions that straddle the equator, the seasons are determined by the timing and amount of precipitation. But this is only a simple view of how the natural flow of the seasons — seasonality — affects societies, ecosystems, and the environment.

The March Lion

The works of many writers and poets have focused on the seasons. They have written about the "season of our discontent," "the winter of our years," "'tis the season to be jolly," and so on. There are (or used to be) distinct baseball, football, soccer, golf, hockey, and tennis seasons. In business there are seasonal changes in the clothing industry, stock trading, commodities, farming, and the auto industry, to name a few.

In agriculture we have the growing season, the planting season, the harvest season, the rainy season, the frost-free season, the mosquito season, the season for various kinds of bugs and other pests, and so on. In many parts of the world, they have what is called the "hunger season," or that part of the year just before the harvest when people have consumed much of the food they grew the year before, have the least amount of food to eat, and are working the hardest because of the harvest.

The seasons have played a dominant role in our lives throughout history, as witnessed by, for example, medieval frescoes that pay homage to seasonal activities. The Druids, Anasazi, and Aztecs, among others, built structures that precisely indicated times of solstice. The farther back in time one looks, the more dominant has been the influence on human activities of seasonality. In ancient times, people stored grain from the harvest in order to feed themselves through the winter, spring, and summer of the following year, storing enough food to get them through at least one annual cycle and, in some cases, two or more such cycles (in the event of drought or other interruptions in the food production/supply process). Clearly, agricultural activities have been dependent on the seasons for as long as humans have farmed.

But humans are always thinking of ways to best neutralize the influences of Mother Nature. They have tried to develop ways to override the natural rhythm of the seasons. They have built dams and irrigation systems to ensure a flow of water out of season; they store water for hydropower energy needs as well. They have developed air-conditioning, which has been used to create pockets of the (cool) temperate zone climate in the tropics. (In the early 1940s, many thought the "air-conditioning revolution" would create a more vigorous and productive work environment, like the one that exists in the Northern Hemisphere. In the early part of the 20th century, differences in climate were seen as THE key determining factor in the large differences in productivity between cultures of the North and cultures of the South.)

Another example is greenhouses in the deserts of the Middle East and of the American Southwest that have created artificial environments for food production, environments that would otherwise have been too hot and dry for such activities.

Clearly, when you take the time to think about it, the dominance of the concept of seasons shows up in literature, in our psychological makeup, and in just about everything that we do (or don't do). It is clearly evidenced in the natural world of flora and fauna in different regions around the globe (e.g., the pollination season, the mating season, the spawning season, the migration season).

And there is another key aspect of the seasons that has been overlooked, even by most scientists. The seasons are where the weather meets climate.

Weather is defined in such a way as to occur on relatively short time scales — a few hours to several days. There is a research community that focuses its efforts on understanding the weather — studying severe storms such as tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes as well as brushfires, flash floods, freezes, and so forth. That community, with only a few exceptions, does not deal explicitly with climate.

Climate has been defined as "average weather." It is a statistical notion based on taking a period of time (at least several weeks or more) and averaging the meteorological variables of that period (such as wind, rain, temperature, cloudiness) to determine the region's climatic characteristics. The climate research community, for its part, seldom delves explicitly into the world of weather (that is, the shorter time scales). So, even the scientific community has, for the most part, failed to see the important role of the seasons as integrators of weather information that people need in order to live.

El Niño, for instance, is a climate phenomenon. With the return of El Niño, as is happening now, there are accompanying changes in regional weather patterns in the US. For example, the following changes are likely to occur: drier in the Pacific Northwest [more chance of water shortages], wetter in the Gulf states [more chance of flooding], warmer in the Northeast [a milder winter], fewer hurricanes [less concern about damage], and so on. A fair question is, why is it that many of the people who are interested in understanding the weather are only now, in the 1990s, starting to take notice of climate factors such as El Niño, the recurring warming of the ocean's surface around the equator in the Pacific?

Societal and individual activities are physically, socially, culturally, and psychologically tied to the seasons — the astronomical, meteorological, agricultural, entertainment (TV, sports, summer movie blockbusters), health, and environmental seasons. Our society has not yet focused on such an expanded, eye-opening view of the natural flow of the seasons and the many attempts by societies to alter that flow to suit their own perceived needs. An understanding of this will become more important as we (America) move deeper and deeper into becoming a society dependent on services and not on mining, logging, or even manufacturing. Seasonal changes are much more important to us and our future than just the changing color of leaves in the fall. In sum, "the seasons are us."

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