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How exactly do the people survive the multi-year winters as far as feeding themselves?

You can't grow crops in winter. Nor can you feed your livestock off what grows. But ordinarily you can't save food for people or animals for multi-year periods, because it will spoil.

Do they have some extra-advanced refrigeration technology allowing them to store grains, animal feed etc. for many years?

In addition, since you can't predict how long the winter will be, you don't know how much to stockpile; and the summer may be significantly shorter than winter, so you either have to front-load all your stockpiling on the first couple of years, or starve in case the winter is much longer than summer.

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    I don't think GRRM ever explains exactly how this is supposed to work. There are references to things like storing meat inside the Wall (refrigeration), shipping food from other continents and of course storage of "dry" goods, like grain, apples, dried fish. – TLP Aug 23 '12 at 17:26
  • @TLP - as far as I know from reading LifeHacker etc.., pretty much every food type has a limited shelf life even frozen. Are the other continents not subject to the same long winter? – DVK-on-Ahch-To Aug 23 '12 at 17:29
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    Search for `Inuit diet' can give some insights. – defhlt Aug 23 '12 at 23:47
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    Not everywhere is the same temperature. Winter is obviously worst in the North where a constant worry is preparing for the next one. Remember the Stark words: Winter is coming. However in the warmer South it might still be possible to grow root vegetables and farm animals. Food may also be imported from overseas. – TheMathemagician Jun 19 '13 at 8:48
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    “You can't grow crops in winter.” Maybe you can’t grow crops in winter. I’m a dab hand with a trowel and a donkey-plough. – Paul D. Waite Jun 9 '14 at 18:45
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First off... an unusually long winter is its own refrigeration. You don't need the Frigidaire when it's -10F outside. (Of course, waiting for it to come, things would spoil.)

I'm only a lowly agriculture student and hardly an expert, but even today with mechanized agriculture, it's tough to grow enough hay for livestock for a 3-4 month winter. Farmers will buy it shipped in from other places. If you figure a 5-7 month growing season is typical, and a 4 month winter, well obviously we're breaking even (as a whole), and putting away a little extra (when droughts happen, we can often ship in hay from other places in the summer without using everything we'll need for the coming winter). But this extra is going to be 50%, maybe 100% or even %150-200 (in a good year, and only locally) of what we need.

Boosting the growing season would help. If in 5 months you can grow (mostly) enough for a 5 month winter, then in theory a 10 year summer might (mostly) allow enough for a 10 year winter. Except... hay isn't just dead grass. It's semi-dried plants and if it dries out too much it loses much of its nutritive value (and if it stays too damp, it gets moldy!). Even if you were rotating, eventually you'd be storing this stuff longer than a year or two, and you'd see lots of spoilage and even it drying out and crumbling to dust. While the winter can refrigerate, the wait for it can be much too long. I don't see how decade long summers would help to save enough away for even a 2 year long winter.

And that's just for livestock.

Humans can't eat hay. They need fresh vegetables at least every couple of months, or scurvy sets in. It will kill, it will kill much sooner than the end of a 5 year winter. And while you could freeze and thaw vegetables, the extra-long summer doesn't allow you to do this except at the very last moment. So you can't save up 10 years worth of onions and carrots and lemons and whatever else.

Now, other objections can be waved away. Seeds wouldn't last 10 years in our world, but in a world where plants have adapted to this, I assume most would. Our orchard trees would need periodic winters for dormancy, but that will have been adapted out in their world.

But this rest? The inhabitants can't have anything resembling human biochemistry I'm afraid. And on top of that, the logistics would be intractable even for our own level of technology (remember, the government was able to plan to save a few hundred thousand out of hundreds of millions for a short 18 month nuclear winter).

So, the answer is "magic".

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  • I think you are forgetting about how the (high) north, even in "summer" has freezing temperatures, meaning that grain/etc. could be frozen throughout the summer. – NominSim Aug 23 '12 at 17:55
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    How high in latitude do you need to go? And how can you move enough to make it worthwhile without rail and steam engine? You can increase your population to provide manual labor, but then you increase the amount of goods you need to store. It just doesn't work. – John O Aug 23 '12 at 18:04
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    Grain alone means scurvy. And it's not a good animal feed for pre-mechanization agriculture. Again, how do you get the vegetables up to the frozen wasteland without trains? You'd have to send men and horses, and they eat most of it on the trip up there and the remainder on the trip back. – John O Aug 23 '12 at 18:16
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    You can't sail ships into icebound ports. And they don't exactly have nuclear icebreakers either. While its true the Romans moved vast quantities of food, they were doing so in the nice warm Mediterranean. They weren't sending it to Siberia via the North Atlantic. Don't take this as a criticism of the story, or even the concept of the variable length seasons... both are very compelling. – John O Aug 23 '12 at 18:36
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    Eskimos do just fine living in near perpetual winter on Earth. Narwhal skin is high in Vitamin C which is where they get theirs from in the Arctic. I imagine there are other sources in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. – Nick Dec 4 '12 at 16:38
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A list of food shelf life1 shows that dry goods kept in optimum conditions (i.e. Granarys etc) can last a very long time(bear in mind that this is at "room temperature", and not freezing conditions like in winter):

Product             Optimum Shelf Life     Opened Shelf Life
Whole Wheat Flour         5 years               2 years
White Flour               5 years               2 years
Hard White Winter Wheat   30 years              30 years
White Rice                30 years              30 years

Additionally the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) states2 that,

"Food stored constantly at 0 °F will always be safe. Only the quality suffers with lengthy freezer storage."

and that,

"Because freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only."

Winter provides the perfect freezing conditions, so they need not worry about the food ever going bad but merely the quantity of food that they store. This is talked about several times in the books, they prepare ahead of time to maintain large stores of food. (Though since they only have guesses as to how long their winters will last they sometimes end up falling short and have to ration).

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10

It seems to me, and I could be wrong about this, that "Winter" still allows for the growing of some crops. There are frequent mentions of summer wines vs winter wines, for instance, and I don't think that's the only concern. While food is not going to be as common, it still seems to be around.

Furthermore, it doesn't seem like the entire kingdom suffers completely. The south in particular seems to be warm enough to support some growth of crop.

Bottom line is, they seem to store what they can, in particular grains, but they seem to be able to grow enough to make some substance, either by growing in the warmer South, or growing different kinds of crops.

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  • 1
    Only just noticed this answer, but I think you're right. I've only seen the show, not read the books... and if they have "summer wine" and "winter wine", then it suggests that (at least in the south) it means bad growing conditions instead of frozen wasteland. – John O Jul 5 '13 at 17:02

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