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How groundhogs came to forecast end of winter



Here we go again. This Wednesday is Feb. 2, the day a big rodent with the orthographically challenging name Punxsutawney Phil will be rudely awakened to offer us his weather prediction for the following six weeks.

Legend tells us the outcome of that Pennsylvania groundhog's brief venture out of hibernation: If he sees his shadow, he'll retreat and there will be bad weather for those six weeks; if he doesn't, we'll have an early spring.

Intrigued by this unusual weather forecast, I decided to seek its background. Although I went to many sources, the best I found was an essay by meteorologist Keith Heidorn upon whose commentary much of the remainder of this column is based.

I was surprised to find that I had centuries to investigate. We start almost a millennium before Columbus ventured west. In 542 AD, the Roman Emperor Justinian declared Feb. 2 the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. This formal name was soon shortened to Candlemas Day, because on it candles to last the remainder of the winter were blessed.

There is, of course, another feature of this date. It is approximately midway between the Winter Solstice, Dec. 21 this past year, and the Spring Equinox, which will fall on March 20 this year. Thus winter is almost half over and, although cabin fever may be approaching its height, the days are lengthening fast and spring is not too far away.

For this reason rural folk looked for signs that would predict what was still in store for them. Religion led them to focus many of their predictions on holidays. The one that applies here is to be found in a little ditty:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,

Winter will have another flight;

But if Candlemas Day brings clouds and rain,

Winter is gone and won't come again.

Clearly, those medieval peasants didn't need a woodchuck to serve as their weatherman. And in reality neither do we. We can let poor Punxsutawney Phil remain underground with Punxsutawney Phyllis to finish their winter nap.

Many years later the relatives of those farmers came to North America, where they retained their religious legends and mixed them with messages conveyed by the animals that had lived here long before the colonists arrived. After all, woodchucks, together with bears, mice, bats, frogs and toads, are all smart enough to know when to retreat underground to sleep more or less soundly through the winter. Thus we have Groundhog Day.

We shouldn't feel too sorry for Phil. He doesn't have too much longer to sleep anyway. In eight recent years, central Pennsylvania woodchucks emerged from their dens between Jan. 29 and Feb. 8 without handlers bothering them. Phyllis and other females will sleep a month longer, giving the usually solitary males plenty of time to develop emotional readiness and to plan strategies for their brief courtships. Here in Western New York, 150 miles farther north, our groundhog emergence dates are probably only a week or so later.

What then about the prediction? Here is what Dr. Heidorn says: "We are looking for weather dominated by either sun (shadow) or heavy cloud (no shadow). A sunny winter day indicates a weather situation likely dominated by a cold high pressure system. Such conditions may last for another day or two or three. A winter day with gray skies and weak sun giving no shadow generally indicates the influx of warmer, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.

"If we used the groundhog to forecast the weather for only the next few days, it would probably be right a bit better than half the time for the following day and decreasingly likely to be correct as the forecast is extended to additional days. So Phil can give a fair short-term weather forecast. Of course, a stick can do the same job, but sticks are not cute, fat, furry animals."

Heidorn continues: "As for longer term forecasts, Phil and all other animals are terrible long-range weather forecasters. Although they can get lucky and be right once in awhile - even a stopped clock is right twice a day - no reliable studies indicate any animal has special abilities to foresee weather conditions. In fact, most observational evidence suggests quite the opposite. For example, migrating birds often arrive too early to avoid hazardous cold-season weather conditions, and die as a result."

Will that stop us from focusing our attention on that small Pennsylvania town this week? Not on your life.