Gone are the days when we as South Africans would experience a three-month spring season, easing into summer, and then cooling off for three months before we hit winter.
Adriaan van der Walt, lecturer in the department of geography at the University of the Free State, focuses his research on biometeorology (a specialist discipline exploring the role of climate change in physical and human environments) as well as climatology and geographic information systems.
He recently published an article, Statistical classification of South African seasonal divisions on the basis of daily temperature data, in the South African Journal of Science.
In this study, which Van der Walt undertook with Jennifer Fitchett, a colleague from Wits, data on daily maximum and minimum temperatures was collected from 35 meteorological stations of the SA Weather Service, covering the period between 1980 and 2015. They went to great lengths to ensure that they had a complete set of data before presenting it to demonstrate seasonal brackets.
Their statistical seasonal brackets indicate that South Africans now experience longer summers (from October to March), autumn in April and May, winter from June to August, and spring in September.
Although considerable work has been done using rainfall to determine seasonality in southern Africa, Van der Walt believes that these methods did not work well as there are too many inconsistencies in this approach, as identified by Roffe et al (2019, South African Geographical Journal).
To make matters more complicated – as a semi-arid region, and with desert conditions along the West Coast – some regions do not have enough rainfall to use as a classifier.
Temperature, on the other hand, worked well in this study. “Temperature, by contrast, is a continuous variable, and southern Africa has sufficient seasonal variation to allow for successful classification,” he says.
“Although several international studies used temperature metrics to statistically classify their seasonal divisions, this study would be the first known publication in a South African context using temperature as classification metric.”
He says what we understand as seasons largely relates to phenology – the appearance of blossoms in spring, the colouration and fall of leaves in autumn, and the migration of birds, as a few examples.
“These phenological shifts are more sensitive to temperature than other climatic variables.”
He says they believe that a clearly defined and communicated method should be used in defining seasons, rather than just assigning months to seasons.
“One of the most important arguments of our work is that one needs to critically consider breaks in seasons, rather than arbitrarily placing months into seasons, and so we welcome any alternate approaches."
Some sectors apply the temperature-based division to their benefit.
"…In the tourism sector it is becoming increasingly important to align advertising with the season most climatically suitable for tourism,” he says.
Temperature-based division is also used to develop adaptive strategies to monitor seasonal changes in temperature under climate change.
However, he says each sector will have its own way of defining seasons.
“Seasonal boundaries should nevertheless be clearly communicated with the logic behind them.”