Can a 125-year-old tradition really predict when winter will end?
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
With late January and early February being the coldest time of the year in North America, many people are beginning to ask how much longer winter will last. If you’re tired of the tentative predictions given by media weather forecasters who change their opinion weekly, go to the one reliable source for a definitive answer. Just ask a groundhog.
1. What’s a groundhog? You’ve probably seen a groundhog, but you might know it by a different name. In some places they’re called marmots; in others, they’re referred to as woodchucks. They’re also known as whistlepigs, thanks to the sound they make when alarmed. All are the same animal and are related to the squirrel. The typical groundhog is approximately 20 inches long and weighs 12 to 15 pounds. The only rodents in North America that are larger than a groundhog are the beaver and the porcupine. The groundhog digs burrows for its home, and old groundhog burrows provide a residence for many other critters.
2. Punxsutawney. As far as weather forecasters go, the most famous groundhog lives in Punxsutawney, a small town (estimated population 6,000) in western Pennsylvania. The name came from the Delaware Indians who lived in the area during the 1700s. They called the location “ponksad-uteney,” which meant “town of the sand-flies.” Despite the popularity of the local groundhog, the town remains small except for a few days around the second of February. That’s when the multitudes gather to learn Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication.
3. A bit of history. For centuries there’s been a widespread belief that some of the best long-term weather forecasters were mammals that hibernate to escape the worst of winter. After all, if they woke up too soon, they would have to endure a world of limited food and freezing temperatures. In Germany, tradition held that if the hedgehog saw its shadow when it first emerged from its burrow, it would retreat underground, and winter would extend for another six weeks. If it was overcast and it didn’t see its shadow, there would be an early spring. Unfortunately, when the early German immigrants came to America, they found that their new home had no hedgehogs. But it did have groundhogs.
4. Hibernation. Groundhogs are one of the few species that enter into true hibernation. During this period their body temperature drops to only a few degrees above the ambient temperature. They often create a second burrow to use for winter, with the actual sleeping chamber, or hibernaculum, dug below the frost line. This can result in a winter body temperature as low as 39 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They usually will hibernate from October until March or April, but in moderate climates they may hibernate for only three months. Punxsutawney Phil, however, always gets up on February 2.
5. Why February 2? That is the date celebrated in many cultures as the midpoint of winter, and it’s often used to measure the severity of the cold season. It is also called the cross-quarter day, halfway between the December winter solstice and the March vernal equinox. What better day for Phil to make his annual prediction?
7. The Inner Circle. If you go to a Groundhog Day celebration at Punxsutawney, you’ll see a number of gentlemen in tuxedos and top hats wandering around town. These are local dignitaries from the Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club. This group is responsible for putting on the Groundhog Day celebration and publicizing the relevant facts about Punxsutawney Phil. For example, even though a normal groundhog lives for about six years, according to the Inner Circle, this is the only Phil that has taken part in the ceremonies, which have been going on since 1886. They also say that Phil has been 100 percent accurate in his predictions. This group is responsible for the care of Phil throughout the year. Except for his trip up the hill to Gobbler’s Knob each February 2, he actually lives at the town library.
8. Directions. Punxsutawney is located about 20 miles south of Interstate 80 in western Pennsylvania. It lies approximately 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, and 150 miles southeast of Erie. Many of the Groundhog Day festivities take place in downtown Punxsutawney, both before and after Phil comes out to make his yearly prediction.
9. Get up early. Activities for the Groundhog Day celebration start on January 29, culminating in the forecast up on Gobbler’s Knob the morning of February 2. You can walk to the Knob from the town square (about 1½ miles), but shuttle buses start running at 3:00 a.m. Although the buses continue later, there’s no guarantee you will arrive in time for the announcement ceremony if you leave after 5:30 a.m.
10. Following Phil. Although Punxsutawney Phil has been making weather predictions since 1886, he does keep up with the times. Now, in addition to his appearance on Gobbler’s Knob, Phil updates his fans via texting, Twitter, and his own Facebook page.
11. Phil’s competition. Phil does have competition in the groundhog weather-forecasting arena: Chattanooga Chuck from Tennessee, General Beauregard Lee of Georgia, Wiarton Willie from Canada, and many more. However, according to the Inner Circle, Punxsutawney Phil is the only true weather-forecasting groundhog. The others are just imposters.
12. Phil’s accuracy. Over the years Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow 98 times (6 more weeks of winter), not seen his shadow 15 times (early spring), and someone forgot to keep the record nine times. The Inner Circle says his record is perfect, but they might be a little biased. (I think at least one of the members is also on the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce board.) Actually, according to the National Geographic Web site, the U.S. National Climatic Data Center has estimated that Phil is correct only about 40 percent of the time. But we don’t think Phil’s supporters really care. What better way to have fun in the middle of the winter than to visit Punxsutawney Phil at Gobbler’s Knob?
13. YouTube video. If you can’t convince yourself to catch a shuttle bus at 3:00 a.m. to see Phil in person, you can watch a short video of last year’s activities featuring the Top Hats, the thousands of visitors, and a close-up of Phil at www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQ4aK9GIsTA&feature=fvst.