In ancient times, human beings worried every winter that spring, with its warming sun, would never come. They had no inkling that they lived on a spinning globe whose tilted axis exposed them to varying intensities of sunlight, thus producing the seasons. All they knew was that their world had been cold and dark for months; if the gods were angered by humankind’s folly, would the life-giving warmth never return? In this first week of a false spring, it’s an anxiety I’ve come to share. As I write this, it’s 30 degrees and wintry gray in most of the East, with a huge storm dumping yet more snow in Washington, D.C., and New England. The tender shoots of hyacinths and crocuses in my yard, which only recently emerged from a 2-foot-deep glacial crust, are cowering under a heartless wind. The relentless cold is the first complaint on everyone’s lips. “Will this ever end?” a woman I didn’t know said to me as we passed, shivering in our winter coats, on the street.
All over the planet, people could be forgiven for wondering if the gods are angry. Thus far in 2014, truly bizarre weather has been the norm. Blizzards buried Birmingham, Ala., and Tokyo, while it hit 62 degrees in Alaska in January. California suffered through its worst drought in more than a century, while the wettest winter since 1766 submerged much of England in a biblical flood. Australia was so hot—110 degrees for days at a time—that 1,000 bats fell out of the trees, dead of heat stroke. Our ancestors surely would be frightened. What punishing extremes lie ahead this summer? Today we know better than to blame the gods, but I plan to sacrifice a chicken to appease them, just in case.