Groundhog Day. Fake News?

By Colleen Gondolfi, Blooming Artichoke Herbary

Groundhog. Shenandoah National Park. 6.4.12. Wikipedia.

February.  It’s wet (usually).  It’s cold (almost definitely).  And by the time we get to this point in the new year, I think most of us are looking forward to signs of spring and warmer weather.  Perfectly natural that we should look for something that confirms spring is coming.  It is?  Great!  When???  Enter a 13-pound, bushy-tailed rodent, excuse me, woodchuck.  In this omniscient animal we place our faith when determining when to plant those peas and when to buy the new bikini.  But should we?

Dial back a few years to February 2, 1887 in Gobbler’s Knob, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  A group of groundhog hunters tickled a groundhog out of his burrow.  Phil the First looked around, saw his shadow and then presumably turned around and waddled back to his burrow because they were in for six more weeks of winter.  There has been a continuous succession of Phil ever since.  If Phil sees his shadow, back to the burrow.  More winter on the way.  If he does not, well probably still back to the burrow, but spring will come a lot sooner.    

If it seems unlikely that all this came about out of thin air, you are correct.  The tradition has its roots in the Christian festival Candlemas, which in turn has its origin in the Pagan festival of Imbolc.  Imbolc marked the beginning of spring and the return of the sun.  Candlemas was the day that candles were brought to the church for use in the coming year, and is also a celebration of light (as well as a commemoration of the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem).  Some people believed that if it was sunny on Candlemas, they were in for another forty days of winter.  The Germans took this a step further by electing a mascot.  In Europe, this was usually a hedgehog.  When Germans settled in America, they brought the tradition with them, but hedgehogs were thin on the ground.  Groundhogs were much more common.  And the US tradition began.

So, we have our winter/spring predictions on February 2nd.  Just how accurate is this anyway?  Analysis varies.  According to a study done by the National Climatic Data Center, Phil nails it about 50% of the time.  Coin toss anyone?  Other analysis finds him accurate between 36% and 39%.  The differences appear to be mostly due to the number of years used in the comparisons and the animals.  Though Staten Island Chuck is reported to be almost 80% accurate.  What?  Did you think Phil was the only game around?

But wait!  What if you don’t have a groundhog handy?  Could some other animal do in a pinch?  Apparently, for some people, yes.  If you go to Vermillion, Ohio you can attend the annual Wooly Bear Festival to measure the orange bands on the wooly bear caterpillars to get your winter projection.  Unfortunately, the caterpillars haven’t proven any more accurate than the groundhog.  Also, it was discovered that their bands reflect the prior winter weather.  Not so helpful, but a great excuse for a party. 

Other animals used for weather forecast include cows, cats, frogs, birds and turtles.  Folklore says that cows lay down when it’s about to get cold.  Standing lets them regulate their body temperature in warmer weather.  And while the standing bit may be true, there is no evidence to suggest that they plant themselves on the ground because it is getting chilly.  If you have a cat, watch the weather carefully if it sneezes, scratches behind its ear or snores.  I think cats are clever, talented, animals, but even I’m not buying into that one.  Frogs are supposed to get louder when bad weather is approaching.  There is actually some validation for this one, for some frogs, but whether you can make a prediction based on it is another subject.  And no, when you see birds sitting on a power line, it does not mean it is about to rain.  Neither does a turtle crossing the road mean more rain coming.  I assume they just want to get to the other side. 

My suggestion?  Aside from my knees, which are brilliant predictors of incoming weather.  Spring will get here in its own sweet time.  Prepare for the worse, hope for the best.  And when you need an immediate update, stick your hand out the window.

References Editors. History. First Groundhog Day. A&E Television Networks.  Published 11/24/09.  Updated 2/2/21. Accessed February 28, 2021. Staff.  History. Groundhog Day: History and Facts. A&E Television Networks. Published 2/2/12.  Updated 2/2/21. Accessed 2/28/21.

Marshall Shepherd, Senior Contributor.  Forbes. How Accurate are Groundhogs and 8 other Animals at Predicting Weather?  2/2/16.  Accessed 2/28/21.

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