Each year on February 2nd Punxsutawney Phil, a legendary groundhog from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, comes up from his burrow to predict whether the winter will wear on or if spring will arrive soon.
Legend has it that if Phil sees his shadow, winter will continue for six more weeks. If he doesn’t see his shadow, spring will come early! While sunny winter days are indeed associated with colder and drier air, we shouldn’t be so eager to replace the Ed Buckners, Keith Monahans, and Todd Yakoubians of the world with woodchucks just yet. Shadows and weather can be two extremes, so you may be wondering what’s the science behind it all. Well, we did a little digging, and (SPOILER ALERT) there is none; however, there is a rich history behind National Groundhog Day in the United States and around the world.
February 2nd has been marked as a significant day in several ancient and even modern traditions. The day falls roughly midway between the winter solstice – which marks the start of winter – and the spring equinox – the moment the sun is exactly above the equator so there is equal time in the day and night. So, turns out there might be some science here after all!
In Celtic culture, the day was celebrated as Imbolc, a festival marking the beginning of spring. At some point, as Christianity spread throughout Europe, Imbolc evolved into Candlemas when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long winter would be.
Eventually, Germans took their own spin on the tradition by selecting an animal as a means of predicting weather and pronouncing the day sunny only if badgers and other small animals saw their own shadows. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when Germans immigrated to the United States, they brought the custom with them and chose a groundhog as the annual forecaster.
The first official Groundhog Day in the United States took place on February 2, 1887 hosted by newspaper editor, Clymer Freas, who sold a group of businessmen and fellow groundhog hunters on the idea. Since then, each year, thousands of onlookers gather in Punxsutawney for a three-day celebration complete with men in top hats, entertainment, and activities, all mere accents to the main event — to witness Phil’s prediction. And for those who can’t make their way to the Keystone State for the festivities, it is usually televised across the nation. Some states even get second opinions from their own state’s groundhogs like Birmingham Bill in Alabama and Staten Island Chuck in New York.
So how accurate are the predictions?As it turns out – not very. Studies by the National Climatic Data Center and the Canadian weather service shows that Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions have only been accurate about 40 percent of the time (Staten Island Chuck, on the other hand, is reportedly accurate about 70 percent of the time!). In Phil’s defense, predicting the arrival of spring for an entire country, especially one with such varied regional climates as the United States, isn’t easy. For now, it’s best we leave predicting the weather to meteorologists (see Ed, Keith and Todd mentioned above) and the National Weather Service for accurate weather predictions.