Groundhog Day: Fact, Fiction

Holiday to face ongoing strife as climate change increases temperatures

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A small mammal in midwestern Pennsylvania said that spring will come early this year — that mammal is Punxsutawney Phil, the famous weather predicting groundhog who decides the current year’s weather patterns. According to a 133-year-old legend, that is.

Feb. 2, was already a notable date in several cultures before Groundhog Day was founded. In Celtic tradition, the people celebrated the “Imbolc” as the beginning of spring. This evolved into Candlemas; it was believed that 40 days of cold was brought on if it was sunny on Candlemas.

The first notion of small woodland creatures predicting the year’s weather patterns came from German culture. It was believed the day would be sunny if the woodland creatures saw their shadows. Settlers carried this to the New World when they settled in Pennsylvania in the 1840s and narrowed down to one small animal: the Woodchuck, commonly known as the Groundhog.

The Groundhog is one of the largest members of the squirrel family and among the 14 species of marmots. The animals burrow into the ground as the weather gets cold and hibernate until it becomes warm enough for the marmots to return to the surface to resume their feast-or-famine lifestyle.

The first official Groundhog Day in the United States took place on Feb. 2, 1887, in Punxsutawney. The idea originated from Clymer Freas, a newspaper editor, and further developed by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, which was formed in the 1880s. The ceremony took place (and continues to take place) at Gobblers Knob, a recreation park situated in the Jefferson County town. Thousands still venture to the event every February to see whether the small mammal predicts a long winter or an early spring.

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club continues the tradition every year, welcoming spectators to the celebration and taking care of Phil and Gobblers Knob. The superstition is still revered in the present day, deeming that if the Groundhog casts a shadow, there will be an extended winter; if no shadow is cast, spring will come early.

Although the legend has stood the test of time, the groundhog has been proven wrong several years in the past. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, only 40% of Phil’s predictions have been correct from 2010-’19.

“In 2019, Phil forecast a ‘short winter’ when he did not see his shadow and predicted an early spring,” the NOAA website said. “In fact, the contiguous United States saw below average temperatures in both February and March of last year.”

The source pointed out that over the 133-year history of the holiday, the groundhog has only predicted an early spring 19 times and a longer winter 104 times. Ten of the years have no record.

Over time, the predictions have become less and less accurate. Tim Roche, a meteorologist at Weather Underground, said in the article from Live Science, that Phil’s accuracy from 1969 to present day has dropped to 36%. He also noted that Phil is 47% accurate when predicting an early spring.

With the increasing threat of climate change and the continuation of global warming, winters are getting shorter and warmer. One source points out that an early spring is more likely to happen than a late winter.

“Warmer winters could even change entire global weather patterns,” according to an article published in Grist magazine. “The jet stream, the giant atmospheric conveyor belt, is powered by cold air in the Arctic. As those Northern winters warm up, that atmospheric river could start to slow down and wiggle all across the hemisphere.”

Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring for 2020 in front of a packed crowd. This is the second year in a row that an early spring was predicted, however last year was far from the truth.

In fact, there were actually several weather and temperatures broken by the end of the 2019 winter season. Among them was the infamous “Polar Vortex,” a weather anomaly occurring a few days before Groundhog Day which smashed previous records and caused the closures of hundreds of schools and businesses, including Allegheny College.

As the climate crisis continues to intensify, the legend of Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog Day will continue to be put to the test as the small marmot attempts to boost its accuracy while also factoring in a changing world.

Rachel Montgomery
The crowd celebrating Groundhog Day gathers around the stage on which various musical guests perform on Feb. 2, 2020, in Punxsutawney.