Five seasons in Australia? Meet sprinter and sprummer

By Mary-Lou Considine April 14th, 2015

It’s autumn – or so you may think. But did autumn really start on 1 March? And why do we observe four seasons, each exactly three months long?

Book Review: ‘Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia’s changing seasons’

It’s autumn – or so you may think. But did autumn really start on 1 March? And why do we observe four seasons, each exactly three months long?

The four-season year was brought here by Europeans in the late 1700s. Except of course that here down under, the seasons were turned upside down, with our winter coinciding with Europe’s summer and so on. It makes as much sense as one wag’s idea of two seasons: one for footy, and one for the other sports.

In his book Sprinter and Sprummer, botanist Tim Entwisle argues the case for a five-season calendar that more closely reflects antipodean cycles in weather, and plant and animal activity.

Man with glasses, jacket and tie with plants in background

Tim Entwisle, Director and Chief Executive of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, presents the case for a change in seasons in Sprinter and Sprummer. Image: Tim Entwistle.

Tim ­– who runs Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne (and has also worked at the world-famous Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, and as Director of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens) – has come up with a new system that he thinks is more logical for southeastern Australia.

For example, the ‘spring’ flowering period for most Australian plants actually begins in August, the last month of ‘winter’. Tim’s solution is ‘sprinter’, a new season in August–September, which also happens to be peak wattle season. Another new season, ‘sprummer’, would account for October–November, a time of changeable weather and storms in eastern and southern Australia.

Close up of small fluffy yellow flowers

August–September or ‘sprinter’ is peak flowering time for one of Australia’s largest plant groups, wattles (Acacia spp.). Image: Carl Davies/CSIRO.

Then there’s summer – the defining season for Australian plants and animals. Our long summers should really be given four months rather than three, Tim argues. That leaves us with a shorter autumn – April and May; and a shorter winter – June and July.

Of course, alternatives to the four seasons in Australia predate European settlement. Aboriginal groups have their own local ‘calendars’, ranging from just two seasons, up to thirteen.

What these have in common with Tim’s proposal is that they equate more closely with real-life biological cycles. This makes them more useful locally and also provides a better position from which to monitor and understand climate change.

“Climates are influenced by cyclic patterns, such as the El Niño/La Niña Southern Oscillation and a myriad other events around the world, from volcanoes to the fluttering of a butterfly wing,” says Tim.

“Flowering will depend on recent and past rainfall, temperature and day length. Migrating birds and insect activity will be influenced by a similar range of environmental triggers.

“But given that one of the likely consequences of accelerated climate change is a change in seasonal patterns, if we devise a more appropriate system of seasonal shifts and rhythms we should be better able to understand the existing patterns and detect real change more easily.”

Red spindly flower with green leaves radiating from its base

‘Sprummer’ is heralded by the flowering of waratah (Telopea speciosissima) in late September/early October. Image: A Wilson/CSIRO

Sprinter and Sprummer delves into some of Nature’s quirks, like: Why do leaves change from green in summer to red or brown in autumn? And why are some trees deciduous while others, including most Australian native species, live an evergreen lifestyle?

It also provides examples of the ‘butterfly effect’, whereby a single change like the earlier arrival of spring will cause reverberations across the wider web of life.

For example, due to earlier springs, caterpillar populations in the Netherlands now peak 16 days earlier than in 1985. This has led to a 90% decline in populations of the migratory pied flycatcher, which arrives too late for the caterpillar boom.

But that’s not all. The absence of predators means more hungry caterpillars are left to decimate their host plants.

According to Tim, spring creep is changing flowering times for many plants, including England’s famous bluebells. “Spring,” he says, “is becoming sprinter.”

Brown furry flower surrounded by jagged edged green leaves

Like most banksias, the woolly or teddy-bear banksia, Banksia baueri, has its peak flowering in late autumn/early winter. Image: CSIRO.

Since his book was published, Tim has had many people tell him they agree Australia has the ‘wrong’ set of seasons.

“Overall the responses have been overwhelmingly positive,’ he says. ‘Not that people are necessarily rushing out to demand the seasons change, but they are enjoying thinking about things in a new way and thinking about the country we live in more carefully.”

You can order a copy of Sprinter and Sprummer online through CSIRO Publishing.

5 comments

  1. That is all very rational – and who can argue – but there is always a but – here in the Sunshine Coast hinterland each year is different. Our average annual rainfall is about 2400 mm (range 1806-3032 mm since 2007) – most of which is ‘monsoonal’ (falling between late November and May/Jun) but with annual variations of up to about 800 mm. Day temps do not move too far from 22 deg during this period. W to SW winds bring in drier and cooler air for the rest of the year. How do we describe this? I would follow the S Asian system – rainy season and post rainy season!

    The plants and ants tell us all – they seem to adjust their respective flowering and mating flights to what is is coming!

  2. Australia’s seasons have always been based on the climate and temperature. To add another season would mean changing the other seasons which makes that more confusing that it has to.

  3. I agree that these new suggested seasons more accurately describe what the weather is like down under. But what difference does redefining these conceptual dates make? Do farmers only start to feed their plants 1st of September? I am trying to work out what would actually change and why. Real Talk.

  4. I think all seasons need to move forward a month. Ie. Summer Jan-Mar. Autumn Apr-Jun. Winter Jul-Sep. Sprint Oct-Dec

    Our Summers last way beyond March and still reach the high 30s in April at times. Current in Melbourne, Winter should be coming to a close, yet its -1 degree today and looks set to be a very cold start to Spring.

    Who decides or how do we decide to change this? Although for the genenral population their wouldn’t be much of a change in our daily lives other than saying it’s summer in March instead of Autumn. etc. etc.

  5. There used to be ten months in a year, how did the world change when it they made it twelve? Do we all sit and wait for December first to go swimming? Is it here now yesterday was hot, today the sky is filled with rain clouds, the eucalyptus are shedding their bark over my newly mowed lawns, the March flies are starting their thing, I hear rain on the metal roof and in the distance I can hear the curlews calling. Does it really matter what day it is, enjoy.

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