Europe frostbitten by wintriest March in decades

Park life: This time last year, a hot spell meant parks were full of picnickers. © Getty Images

Saturday was World Weather Day, and the bitter cold was on everyone’s lips. But do seasons still matter in a society where few rely on weather conditions for their livelihoods?

‘Honest winter I can welcome not uncordially,’ wrote novelist George Gissing over a century ago. ‘But that long deferment of the calendar’s promise, that weeping gloom of March and April, that bitter blast outraging the honour of May – how often has it robbed me of heart and hope?’

Gissing’s Victorian England, like his elaborate writing style, seems alien to the world of the 21st Century. But today, with Britain wallowing in its longest winter for decades, the sentiment he expressed is alive and well.

‘When will it ever end?’ wailed the Mail on Sunday‘s front page, while a mournful headline in the Sunday Telegraph echoed those words almost precisely.

This month has already been the UK’s snowiest March in 30 years. Forecasters predict that the cold could be as biting and pervasive as it was in the notorious spring of 1962, when average temperatures fell to 2.8°C. These bitter conditions are echoed across Europe; and the weather is taking its toll.

The number of deaths in the past two months exceeds the tally for the same period last year by over 5,000 – a statistic for which most doctors blame the cold. Farmers warn that snowy conditions could lead to record low yields, while businesses across the country predict a sharp fall in profits as people swap shopping trips for afternoons by the fire.

But in a modern, urbanised society where only 1.4% of the labour force work on farms, few lives are truly dictated by the rhythm of the seasons. Why, then, is seasonal change still so important to our lives?

Perhaps it is more to do with psychology than with economics. Long winters have always been associated with absence and misery, from the Greek myth of Persephone to the contemporary Game of Thrones series by George R R Martin. And this is not just metaphor. Many people suffer from periodic depression each winter known as ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’.

Season the day

In a world of central heating and electric light, many people find it exasperating that we still seem unable to escape the tyranny of seasonal change. ‘How can we stop this weather hyperbole?’ asked one journalist yesterday: come cold snaps and heatwaves, life will go on. The weather should not dominate our lives, our moods or our conversations – and certainly not our newspaper headlines.

But for others, the seasons are a precious link between us and the natural world. The Earth’s rhythms are the slow drumbeat that marks the passing of our lives; a year without them would be a monotonous thing. As the American writer John Steinbeck said: ‘What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?’

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in a world without winter?
  2. Is cold weather newsworthy enough to be a front page headline?

Activities

  1. Compose a piece of creative writing that uses seasons as a metaphor for an emotional state.
  2. Research the circadian clock and write a brief explanation of how it works, including a diagram.

Some People Say...

“April is the cruellest month.’ T.S. Eliot”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live in England. Why should this matter to me?
English people are often stereotyped as having a constant obsession with the weather; perhaps there is some truth in that. But natural rhythms affect all of us, wherever we live. In fact, there is a whole scientific discipline called ‘chronobiology’ which is devoted to studying the impact on solar and lunar movements on our bodily processes and hormones.
So any time I’m moody I can just blame it on the weather?
It’s not quite that simple: it’s not just to do with the weather, for a start. Every person has a ‘biological clock’ which controls the release of hormones throughout the day, varying your alertness and your mental state. This is known as your ‘circadian rhythm’. It’s different for each individual.

Word Watch

Urbanised
In countries where most of the population lives in the countryside and makes a living by farming, the seasons are hugely important: they dictate when crops should be planted and harvested, for instance, and when animals will give birth. In the UK, about 80% of people live in urban areas, and most of the rest live in suburbs or small towns.
Persephone
According to Greek Legend, Persephone was a daughter of Zeus, who ruled the gods. She was kidnapped by Hades, God of the Underworld, and before being rescued she ate four pomegranate seeds that he gave her. Ever since then Persephone has been consigned to the Underworld for four months of every year, when her parents mourn and the earth grows infertile. This was the Ancient Greek explanation for winter.
Game of Thrones
In this hugely popular series of fantasy books (which also spawned a television programme), ‘Winter’ is a period which returns at irregular intervals, often lasts years, and brings with it war and disaster. Hence the often quoted and parodied catchphrase: ‘Winter is coming’.
Seasonal affective disorder
SAD is a fairly common disorder, particularly in very northern countries like Finland, where about 9.5% of the population have been diagnosed with it. Lack of light is thought to be to blame, and sufferers may also have a biological clock which is slower to adapt to changing conditions.

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