Image: HBO

The Science Guide to Game of Thrones

A roundup of all the times scientists have tried to explain Westerosi phenomena.

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Jun 16 2015, 1:00pm

Image: HBO

Sunday night, Game of Thrones capped off its fifth season, leaving fans bereft of this narratively sadistic show for another year. Over the last 10 weeks, we've witnessed blood magic, dragon-riding, and an army of reanimated corpses. The fantastical forces on the show have been percolating for years, but it seems that they are now finally coming into their prime.

But just because the show is giving itself over to its more supernatural side doesn't mean there are no scientific curiosities to be found in the Seven Kingdoms. On the contrary, Game of Thrones fans have established a thriving tradition of speculating on the scientific mechanisms of the world of ice and fire, from pontificating on the irregular Westerosi seasons to creating contour maps of its geological history.

I, for one, will continue to believe that Planetos is wobbling around like crazy in some chaotic binary star system filled with red comets

To tide you over until season six, here is a rundown of some of the major theories concerning the orbital, geological, and ecological properties of Planetos, the name fans came up with for the world to avoid writing out Westeros, Essos, Sothoyros, and the unknown continents every time.

The Irregular Seasons

One of the most iconic qualities of the Game of Thrones universe is that summers and winters can last years, even decades. Beyond the fact that long summers are typically followed by long winters, it is impossible to predict the length or severity of any season. Could it be that Westeros is located on a planet with an irregular orbit?

According to graduate students at John Hopkins University, this is a definite possibility. In a 2013 study published on arxiv.com, the team proposed that Game of Thrones might take place on a planet orbiting two or even threestars, which would mess with the seasons enough to make them unpredictably severe and lengthly.

Figure from John Hopkins study. Credit: Veselin Kostov, Daniel Allan, Nikolaus Hartman, Scott Guzewich, Justin Rogers.

Other theorists don't even see the need to involve other stars, and suggest that the odd seasons might be caused in the wake of massive planetary collision. If Planetos suffered some kind of cosmic punch early in its history, it might have developed an axial wobble that influences Westerosi meteorology.

Or, as climate scientist Kaitlin Alexander has suggested, perhaps the world's irregular seasons are shaped by the same forces that ushered in Earth's Ice Ages. "I propose that Westeros [...] experiences glacial cycles just like Earth, but the periods of the underlying Milankovitch cycles are much shorter," she wrote last summer.

"The pattern of season lengths would eventually repeat itself, with a period equal to the least common multiple of the three Milankovitch cycle periods," she continued. "But this least common multiple could be so large—centuries or even millennia—that the seasons would appear random on a human timescale."

As fun as all of these ideas are, they have been shot down by George R. R. Martin himself, who insists that the seasons are much more influenced by supernatural elements than scientific processes like precession and climate change.

But I, for one, will continue to believe that Planetos is wobbling around like crazy in some chaotic binary star system filled with red comets until Martin gives me a new book that proves otherwise.

The Geological History of Westeros

In April 2014, a group of scientists based out of Stanford University published an impressive geological history of the Westerosi continent, complete with topological maps and mineral breakdowns.

"We pieced this geologic history together from character observations, town names, official Game of Thrones maps, and the principles of geology learned here on Earth," the researchers, who run Stanford's Generation Anthropocene blog, wrote when they launched the project. "Using only limited data we were able to reimagine 500 million years of planetary evolution, including volcanoes, continents rising from the oceans, and Ice Ages."

Westeros splitting from Essos. Credit: Miles Traer/Mike Osborne/Jonathan Roberts/Stanford/Generation Anthropocene.

The researchers speculated that Westeros probably split from its neighboring continent of Essos about 25 million years before the main action of Game of Thrones, and that 15 million years before that, much of the world was completely engulfed in ice. If you are interested in finding out how the Black Mountains formed, or about the marine origins of Winterfell limestone, the Stanford team has you covered.

The Resurgence of Long Extinct Ecosystems

Last but certainly not least, it's time to investigate why seemingly extinct or endangered animals—such as direwolves, mammoths, and dragons—appear to be making a comeback in Game of Thrones.

In the pilot episode, the Starks come across six orphaned direwolf pups, and Ned notes that this is the first time direwolves have been seen south of the Wall in hundreds of years. These large, intelligent canines were originally pushed into wildling territory by human encroachment and settlements in the North, which somewhat mirrors the loss of North America's wolves to hunting and habitat loss in the 20th century.

The retreat of direwolves to the North may also be partially inspired by the massive loss of North American megafauna at the tail end of the Ice Age, which has long been associated with the advance of humans over the Bering Land Bridge (though is still a heated debate on the role humans had in their extinction).

Wolf compared to a direwolf. Credit: Sergiodlarosa.

Regardless, it seems likely that the direwolves might be migrating south for the same reasons they originally went north—to avoid hominid predators. This season made it very clear that the White Walkers are marching south in great numbers, and the direwolves may have literally turned tail to run from them. Just as the wolf pups in the pilot episode were a metaphorical omen of the impending tragedy, so too were they a sign that the Walkers had upset the ecological balance north of the Wall.

The revival of dragons, in comparison, is really difficult to explain with any kind of natural history analog, both because these winged nightmares never existed on Earth (that we know of) and because their comeback is depicted as an aggressively magical event.

If reintroducing wolves to the US can produce complex changes to the environment, what would be unleashed by a trio of dragons?

But while the evolutionary history of dragons is murky, Drogon's ravenous feedings have made it abundantly clear that they could have a dramatic effect on the ecology of Westeros. If reintroducing wolves to the United States can produce complex changes to the environment, what kinds of trophic cascades will be unleashed by a trio of dragons?

Perhaps we will find out as the show progresses into its final seasons (though I doubt we'll ever get a detailed account of Planetosi orbital dynamics). It looks as if science is increasingly falling out of favor in the series, while magic's stock has never been higher.

Still, the sheer volume of scientific studies inspired by Game of Thrones in the real world is a testament to its evocative setting. Whether or not the supernatural wins out over the natural, this fantasy saga has inspired genuine scientific curiosity. Maester Aemon would be proud.