Punxsutawney Phil — the pleasantly plump Pennsylvania marmot who claims he “is the only true weather forecasting groundhog” — woke up Thursday morning, crawled out of his hole and saw his shadow.
The groundhog’s prediction came around 7:25 a.m. in Punxsutawney, Pa., where scattered snow showers were blowing by and the temperature was a finger-numbing 25 degrees. We’re not sure where the shadow came from with the sun just coming above the horizon and thick clouds overhead — perhaps all the lights from the TV cameras threw him off. We’ll give him a pass this time.
The plucky marmot did not see his shadow last year, predicting an early spring during what was almost a record-strong El Niño. It wasn’t much of a long shot — forecasters had been saying the same thing for weeks.
Phil probably should have phoned in last year’s forecast this morning, because this one was wrong before he even woke up. When a season begins and when it ends tends to be a subjective matter, but there are actual metrics that phenologists (plant scientists!) use to determine when spring has arrived.
In parts of the Southeast, green leaves are popping out more than 20 days ahead of schedule, according to the National Phenology Network. In late January, daffodils were reported in Oklahoma, crocuses in Delaware and tulips in Boston.
In the last two weeks of January, we tracked a record-long warm streak in Washington, D.C. — it didn’t drop below 32 degrees for 19 days in a row, which is the longest in the month of January. Last month was the second-warmest January since 2000 and the 12th-warmest overall for the capital.
While no one questions Phil’s dedication to the seasonal outlook, his accuracy is an enduring source of controversy.
In 2013, Phil issued a forecast for an early spring, but bitter cold and snow gripped the eastern United States into March that year. The prosecuting attorney in Butler County, Ohio, went as far as to seek the death penalty for Phil for “misrepresentation of early spring” before a Pennsylvania law firm came to Phil’s defense, claiming the Ohio attorney had no jurisdiction to prosecute the groundhog.
Here comes spring! According to the #SpringIndex, spring has sprung in SE states #USANPN #phenology https://t.co/XiLsoM07Ol pic.twitter.com/gSG7wBn0mx— Theresa Crimmins (@TheresaCrimmins) January 30, 2017
Since the groundhog’s first prediction in 1887, Phil has seen his shadow 102 times and not seen it on just 17 occasions. There are nine missing years in the record, but Phil has issued a forecast without exception. Phil’s official website says he has “of course” issued a correct forecast 100 percent of the time. But NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center says Phil’s forecasts have shown “no predictive skill” in recent years. AccuWeather finds the rodent has an 80 percent accuracy rate.
NOAA says Groundhog Day originated as an ancient celebration of the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox.
“Superstition has it that fair weather [at this midpoint] was seen as forbearance of a stormy and cold second half to winter,” NOAA writes in its summary of Groundhog Day background and folklore.
Groundhog Day-like celebrations are held in several other regions of North America where other rodents make their predictions, including:
- Atlanta: General Beau Lee
- Ontario, Canada: Wiarton Willie
- Raleigh, N.C.: Sir Walter Wally
- Sun Prairie, Wis.: Jimmy
- New York City: Staten Island Chuck
- Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Bill