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In Lyman Stone's fantastic blog post about George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, Stone mentions that the seasonal cycle of Westeros is very unrealistic.

Here’s the truth: Medieval societies probably could not survive 6 winters in a row. Even modern societies would be hard-pressed to survive that. It’s not clear that any large-scale civilized life with organized polities could withstand a decade without a growing season.

Yet Westeros does it a lot. We don’t know how. We don’t see any of the things we would expect to see in such a society. Cities and castles should have incredibly vast storage facilities, on a scale unthought-of in Medieval Europe. But that’s not what happens. Cross-Sea trade connections should be spectacularly robust. They don’t seem to be. I mean to ship the cereals needed to feed the winter-hit areas for decades on end would require almost a post-modern level of globalized trade flows.

Is he right? Let's do an experiment. Let's take medieval England (or a similar region) and change one thing -- we'll make the winters last for two years and the summers last for three years. Would humans be able to survive? What technological and societal changes would be needed?

There's a lot of factors to consider, but to make things simple, let's just focus on food (i.e. how much additional food would need to be stored during the winter, etc.). Let's ignore questions like whether houses need to be constructed differently do keep people warm, etc.


NOTE: This question is tagged as . This means that answers should be based on evidence, not conjecture. At a minimum, answers should contain the following:

  1. It should cite reputable sources that explain how medieval England (or a similar region) obtained food during the winter.

  2. It should perform some sort of calculation to determine how much additional food would needed to survive the extended two-year winter.

  3. It should then propose realistic solutions to the challenge of storing food during the winter. The answer should use some sort of calculation to determine how much food each solution would contribute (e.g. increased trade could supply x tons of grain).


An additional note. Although I begin this question by talking about Westeros, I am only interested in answers that focus on medieval England (or a similar region). I'm not interested in answers that talk about Westerosi technology. This is a hard science question, and therefore I'm interested in how the real world would be effected by extended winters.

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This question asks for hard science. All answers to this question should be backed up by equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc. Answers that do not satisfy this requirement might be removed. See the tag description for more information.

  • $\begingroup$ Related : Question asked on Sci-Fi SE. $\endgroup$ – Babika Babaka Jul 18 '16 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that in Game of Thrones, the premise of the long winters is that they are characterized by hardship, economic collapse, societal breakdown to some extent, and declining populations - which is what happened in England during its long winters due to volcanic eruptions. So, while you need a way to humanity to survive, it need not be so effective that humanity survives unscathed. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Oct 30 '16 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ The problem isn't going to be producing the amount of food required so much as preserving it. Before the advent of pasteurization, canning, and refrigeration creating preserved food that would last for more than a year and storing it securely enough to keep the mice and bugs out of it was a tricky proposition. Even dry cereal grains are subject to insect infestation (such as mealworms) and fungus (which is why grain silos are regularly fumigated when long-term storage is required.) $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jul 31 '17 at 19:19
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Yes, I think it can be done.

First, let me direct you to this question and its answers. One point that's well made in Ram's answer is - you are assuming everyone will survive. Or even most people will survive. Your world, with three year summers and two year winters, is milder than the assumptions in that question (which mentioned six years)... but a lot of people are still going to die, especially the ill or sickly, oldest and youngest, the poor (including beggars, the crippled, those without sufficient safety nets), and some percentage of serfs or peasants, with the expectations that these people will, over time, breed enough to cover the loss. It would be rarer to lose the richer, the better connected, those with valuable training, nobles and royalty (and their favorites). Their deaths would still occur, but the danger to them would be somewhat offset by money, that enabler which could let them afford the very best in preservatives, techniques, and an abundance of many rare things that would increase their chances of life - like honey, which by itself lasts decades and preserves beautifully (Crystallized fruit might contain nutrients for years). Or the best in whatever foods do keep nutrients, cheeses, meats, dried fruits, and fresh whatever can be foraged or hunted or force-grown in the winter. This happened in real medival times, it can happen in yours, too - and with the continuation of the upper/controlling levels of society, the society itself will continue despite the loss of those considered expendable.

With a scale of three-to-two for summers and winters, - um, wait, how does fall/spring fit into this? A few extra years for the full four-season's cycle, or carving out time between the two extremes? Nevermind, with the season cycle weighted to have more growing season than dead season, it's likely that the amount of food produced during the whole 5-year-year is sufficient for a 5-year-year... if they produced in each month of summer, as much food as our medieval society produced in each month of summer, and stored for the winter the same percentage of food our medieval folk did, and lost the same percentage to spoilage, they would find they had relatively more food (by three-to-two) as our medieval folk had for the winter. Of course, they would probably eat the extra in summer instead of saving it and either be stronger to survive the winters or feed more people in the summers and lose more people in the winter, but the point remains, enough food can be produced.

The problem is preserving it for a scenario where the growing doesn't happen in smaller regular intervals, but instead the results of a single much longer growing season must last for a much longer timeframe during the winter season. They would need a lot more storage space, minimum 5-8 times as much (8x for going from 3 months to 24 months of stored provisions, or 5x for storing for a five-year-year). At that amount of space, they may prefer to build stone or earth warehouses, thickly insulated with sod, instead of the more usual dug cellars which might destabilize houses at 8x. This would be less efficient during the summer, since it would be less insulated and therefore less temperature-stable, but the cold weather during the winter would help keep everything preserved.

So, lets look at foods and their preservation. First, there are foods that are already preserved for two years or longer, that in fact are considered better for longer aging - cheeses, meads and wines, long fermented or cured foods (which today are gourmet or luxuries), could be preserved for the two years required. Of course, these will also be expensive - but the upper class could afford them, which is kind of the point.

Then, there are more common foods that can be made to keep a long time. The methods of the time include drying, liberal use of salt to brine or cure, smoking, and pickling with vinegar, verjuice, or lemon. The use of nitrates, used in preserving meats, was also known to extend shelf life - in medieval times, this would most likely be saltpeter, which formed naturally in stables and caves and could also be produced with some effort anywhere manure could be gathered and aged. Saltpeter was most famously known for its use in black powder, which was sometimes used to preserve meats.

One common example is salt cured meat - barrels of salted pork or beef could easily last a year and possibly be good for multiple years (one reason it was so common on medieval ships), and salted cod lasts for years, salt cured and smoked hams or procuitto would take a year to cure, and could last months after that without refrigeration, and some very dry jerkies, fish, or sausages will keep almost indefinitely.

Then we get to drying. Dried beans will keep almost indefinitely, although after a year or two they will lose their stored moisture, and need longer to soak and cook - though they do not lose their nutrition. Dried grains will vary, some sources suggest 6 months to a year for grains(although that is stay fresh for, not go bad after), others suggest 8-10 years for soft grains and 20-25 for hard grains if kept dry, cool, and out of sunlight. Probably the truth lies somewhere in between - grains that are not dried spoil quicker, and grains may lose nutrition and flavor after that six months to a year (but still be edible and have nutrition, just past its "best-by" date), and those dried and kept in favorable conditions may last much longer than expected.

And, after a grain has been ground into flour, it could be further preserved by making hardtack - dry, twice baked crackers (also known as ships' biscuits) which lasted at least a year in the very poor conditions found on ships, but which might last and be eaten fifty or a hundred years later if kept in better conditions (without killing or starving the eaters).

Fruits can be stored by drying, either in the sun or an oven. Such will last at minimum 3-6 months at peak condition (at room temperature), and will still be edible possibly for years afterwards with less flavor and nutrition, and can have its shelf life extended by storing at colder temperatures. The same is true of dried vegetables (sun-dried or oven dried), 6-12 months for best flavor and nutrition. Of course, storing at colder temperatures, as would occur during the winter time, will extend shelf life considerably - at least doubling the time it can be stored without additional loss of nutrition.

Pemmican was made from meat that was shaved thin and dried thoroughly, and mixed with rendered tallow for storage. Confits, or potted meat was salted, cooked and stored in its own fats. Rendered tallow or suet was shelf-stable, could last for years, and could be used to block air or water from reaching already preserved food (which spoiled them faster). Pickling vegetables or meats often done with a brine of water and salt, and vinegar or verjuice for better preservation, and herbs and spices added for flavor - such pickles would last for months, and the nutritive value was as high or better in fermented pickles as it was in fresh vegetables, although often lacking in vitamin C.

Additionally, it was known foods lasted longer in cold storage - medieval folk without access to refrigerators could still use this knowledge by utilizing mountain caves or packing food in cellars with snow and ice during the winter - which would use the cool temperatures of the underground rooms and the packed mass of snow and ice to keep the foods cold long after the snows melted... or even mining snow and ice from high altitudes to keep these foods cold even longer. In your two-year winter world, that means much of the food stored during the winter would essentially be frozen for much of the time, which can double the shelf life of many dried or otherwise preserved foods.

And, finally, not all food production would halt in the winter. Some animals would be kept long into the winter season, fed on stored grass or hay, acorns, or perhaps supplemented with stale or ruined grain, and slaughtered periodically (except for breeding animals) to reduce demands on winter feed. Pigs were a choice animal to keep for the poor, since they are not fussy and could supplement scraps with forage even in the winter. Hunting was also an option, with game animals reserved for nobility and hares and rabbits and such the prey of commoners. A certain amount of fishing should also be possible in the winter, ocean fishing fleets or individual fishing in rivers or ponds as the temperature allowed. There may have been some winter foraging, (pine tea was used by iron age vikings, it was a winter source of vitamin C). There may have been some gardening, using glass gardens or heat produced from decomposing manure (I admit the time is wrong, but the idea is there), the products of which would be mostly for the rich, but there would be sources of fresh nutrition to balance out the loss of nutrients and flavor from the longer-preserved foods.

So how would the society have to change? A lot, a lot more planning. People would have to regularly store food during the long summers, and have the discipline to store even when there would be plenty of food after the stored food needs to be eaten (using the stored food from earlier harvests throughout the summer, so all of the later harvests can be fresh-stored for the winter). And they might produce more in the longer growing season than simply the summers back-to-back could account for, since they could stagger harvests (and share the labor of plowing and harvesting when it doesn't have to happen at the same time), and have time to forage, and have fewer crops vulnerable to, or growing seasons shortened by late or early frosts.

Possibly the planning might take the form of a heavier tithe for the lords, who also might distribute some extra back during the winter, at least to keep enough people for summer farming, when it's harder for people to manage that extra planning for themselves. There would also probably be more time in winter to pick up artisan skills and handicrafts (needed to afford fresher nutritious foods), to tell stories, to figure out ways to survive and improve their lives - things which did happen in winter, but like the growing season of summer, magnified by the stretch of time it covers.

Also, preserved food will be losing nutrition and flavor as the winter drags on, and so many people will suffer malnutrition and starvation by the time winter's over even if they have enough unspoiled food to survive - they will have to recover during spring and summer. Better preservation methods or winter foraging or growing methods would be a priority - although it is possible that many foods would be more durable, since seeds (grains and nuts) would have to survive the winters in good enough condition to sprout, and the animals would adapt to surviving the longer season cycle as well, making the whole world relatively the same as ours since it had adapted to all the season lengths.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 really impressed with the research on this answer. I'm not going to accept it, partly because I want to let other people have an opportunity to answer, and partly because I'm looking for more information on storing the quantities of food needed for a long winter (i.e. how many additional storage structures would need to be built, how much time would it take to store all the food etc.) But overall, great answer, and I would give it a bounty if I had more reputation on the site. $\endgroup$ – user171 Jul 19 '16 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ This is a great answer but you TOTALLY miss the most important way of storing calories....as BEER! $\endgroup$ – Jason K Oct 31 '16 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @JasonK - Beer was indeed a popular and important way of storing calories (and grains), but I read (after I had posted this answer) that in medieval-ish times it would tend to last 6-8 months, enough for our winter but not enough to be really noticeable as a preservative for this world's winter. Still if I ever go back and expand this answer, I'll include it. $\endgroup$ – Megha Nov 1 '16 at 6:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Hamlet I don't really think those objections are well-taken. The precise logistics of storing the foods Megha mentioned are entirely dependent on population and agricultural details that GRRM not only hasn't provided but will never provide. He writes from within the context of his medieval characters, who did not hold modern censuses or practice nutritional science. Researching the size of Egyptian grain silos has nothing to do with the question and the [ hard-science ] tag precludes indulging in wankery and handwavium. $\endgroup$ – lly Apr 18 '17 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Hamlet Based on the facts provided, yes, people survive though, yes, many poor people die. The details of who stores what depends on who has power, what do they want, and how much do they want. That's all entirely speculative. Similarly the provisions for the poor, which are presumably in individual cellars and in the hands of profiteers like Littlefinger. Moreover, the largest cities like King's Landing are well to the south where they assume hard winter won't actually obtain. $\endgroup$ – lly Apr 18 '17 at 21:52
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Let's start with the types of food which could last that long. Starting with Long-Term Storage of Special Survival Foods:

The following foods if stored properly have an indefinite shelf-life:

  • Whole Wheat Berries
  • White Sugar
  • Salt
  • Pure Sorghum Molasses
  • Pure Honey

Certain other foods, if stored properly, can keep for 5 to 10 years or even longer. All stored foods should be dated so they can be rotated out when the time comes to replace them.

  • Other cereals, such as oats
  • Dried Beans
  • Dried Corn
  • Rice
  • Couscous
  • Whole Spices

Now, the way in which you have to store them is: get rid of moisture and oxygen. That's the hard part. Didn't someone find seeds stored in a pot from ancient Egypt or something, and didn't some still germinate? I think you can store these foods for this length of time using GoT technology, but at the moment I'm not sure what that method of preservation would be.

I would also like to point out that you might be able to store animal feed as well (not sure how long it will keep) and then you can feed that to animals and they'll produce milk, eggs, and meat. Chickens love insects too.

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't really answer the question I'm asking. You don't explain what changes would be needed to allow medieval england to survive a two year winter. $\endgroup$ – user171 Jul 18 '16 at 1:27
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Well, to be fair, with the foods I have considered (seen) it's not possible. And that is considering modern technology, let alone medieval.

https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/storing-whole-grains

Both show that, even frozen, shelf life is up to a year in ideal conditions. The only option would be to find a way to grow it in winter, which I'll admit I didn't bother reading up on.

The only other option I've considered is the research done by NASA to have food that lasts for years, but that is advanced tech even by today's standards (and I've not read up on the hard science behind it, so I'll stay well clear of debating that).

Just to clarify things, this answer is based on 'the greater good'. In other words, because all options other than 'freezing' is off the table for the masses (salt, cheese, wine, dried fruits... all too expensive for the majority), I see no options where there won't be consistent casualties of this world.

So, unless the lords of the land make those preservation techniques available to the masses (which likely won't happen), you face a realm where death is the norm. I understand this is the case in George R. R. Martin's work, but that is the exact reason I avoid it in the first place -- as this showcases cruelty for the sake of cruelty.

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    $\begingroup$ Food lasts for years if it's cold enough. And winter is coming. $\endgroup$ – Ginasius Jul 17 '16 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ Lasting and being usable after thawing are not the same. If food is frozen wrong, crystals can form and damage the cells causing the cytoplasm to leak out. Yes, the food will still 'last', but if you try to thaw it and cook/eat it, it will not have the nutrients you need to survive. $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Jul 17 '16 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ Just for clarification. 'frozen wrong', meaning the temperature drops slowly. The crystals I mentioned form naturally around what... -2 degrees Centigrade? That's why you need to 'snap freeze' foods if you want to keep it 'fresh', to avoid the crystals forming. $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Jul 17 '16 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Fayth85 - I think you may have missed these sources are talking about best-by dates, after which the food will be less flavorful and nutritious, but still edible and still survivable. The first link admits frozen food can be safely eaten nearly indefinitely. And, even if the food is stale and tasteless, it would still be valuable if it had any nutrients, or any calories at all, since people can live with malnutrition longer than starvation. (also, your first link has up to a year for frozen steaks/roasts - one year for grains and a second for livestock is two years viability at worst) $\endgroup$ – Megha Jul 18 '16 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Fayth85 - blink. The two years viability (worst case with no other food and no other preservation) is still two years of full nutrition and flavor. Those who can afford it will suffer neither malnutrition nor starvation. There will be a sliding scale of those who can afford less of the fresher foods, and use more of increasingly stale or low quality foodstuffs, until there are those you mention and those that die... but a society can survive with a high replacement rate. And, like I said, that's without salting, smoking, pickling, or drying to extend the shelf life of other foods. $\endgroup$ – Megha Jul 19 '16 at 2:34

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