By Joe Shute
It’s amazing how the weather shapes our memories. We can all remember the perfect four seasons as they are preserved in our minds: crisp winter snow and long summer days that never end. Kicking through piles of mouldering autumn leaves and the fresh first days of spring.
A few years ago I was running a nature writing workshop with some youngsters living on an estate in my home city of Sheffield and we conducted a small experiment. It was autumn and we climbed to the top of the nearest hill (this is Sheffield so it isn’t hard to find one) read some poems about autumn and described our own memories of the season.
The young writers recounted their favourite autumn memories: warm mugs of hot chocolate, the reassuring weight of a scarf coiled around the neck, watching the trees turn to fire and listening to raindrops pattering on a skylight. That moment when morning mists rise and the very air seems to change in flavour.
And then we compared those memories to the reality in front of us: it was late October and the leaves had yet to turn, it was still warm enough for flies to be buzzing around our heads and we were all sweating in our winter coats. That day people were sunbathing on the Yorkshire coast.
Our memories may play tricks on us when it comes to the weather, but what is also clear is that now as a result of climate change our seasons are shifting in increasingly unfamiliar ways. While in our minds the four seasons are perfectly quartered like an apple, these days that is turning into a mush.
In my new book, Forecast, a diary of the lost seasons, I have made it my mission to map out exactly how climate change is changing the seasons and affecting people and nature.
Spring is speeding up and autumn lengthening into winters which are increasingly free of frost and snow. And all this is playing havoc with the natural world.
These days migratory birds such as swallows are arriving a full two weeks earlier than they did a few decades ago while other species are increasingly over-wintering in Britain. A recent report estimated one-third of all UK bird species were being impacted by climate change (both negatively and positively as smaller species such as long-tailed tits and goldcrest are coping better with warmer winters).
According to a recent Met Office report published last December, by the 2060s only the highest bits of ground in northern England and Scotland could still experience snowy days if global emissions continue to accelerate at the current pace.
Meanwhile heatwaves, drought, wildfire and flooding are all becoming far more regular occurrences. While the British weather has always been a changeable thing, the future looks increasingly unrecognisable.
A few years ago a psychological study was devised by university researchers to analyse the extent to which adverse weather conditions provoke nostalgia. Participants were encouraged to listen to recordings of extreme weather events like wind, thunder and rain and jot down their feelings. They were also invited to keep a 10-day weather diary which was assessed against meteorological records.
The results were clear: adverse weather leads to psychological distress which in turn leads to more intense feelings of nostalgia which the brain uses to transport us to a more soothing place.
That is food for thought as the gap widens between our memory of the weather and the everyday reality. Nostalgia, as the old saying goes, isn’t what it used to be.
Joe Shute is an author and journalist with a passion for the natural world. His latest book is Forecast, published by Bloomsbury Wildlife in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter @JoeShute