Hear ye! Hear ye! Punxsutawney Phil has chirped — another six weeks of winter will be!
Shortly after 7:25 a.m. on Wednesday, Phil’s Inner Circle presented the woodchuck to what they said was the "largest midweek crowd in the history of Groundhog Day” at Gobbler’s Knob, Pa. Phil whispered the fate of our nation’s winter in “groundhogese” to the Inner Circle for the 136th time, apparently stating he saw his shadow. Over the course of his meteorological career, the marmot predicted an extended winter around 85 percent of the time.
Groundhog Day is a crowd favorite holiday, loathed by some actual meteorologists and a gem of a movie to at least 97 percent of reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes. Whether you think it’s hogwash or not, it is fun to see a group of grown men in top hats and suits hold up a bewildered groundhog like they’re reenacting a scene from “The Lion King,” which received a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes for its original screenplay.
While Phil’s handlers claim he is right “100 percent of the time, of course!” data shows the supersized squirrel has about a 40 percent accuracy rate over his career. It remains to be seen if the prognostications of the “Great Oz of Weather Forecasting” should be chucked, but we can offer our insight by looking at stuff like numbers and weather models, at least until we can get our own forecasting groundhog.
Winter started off weaker than the plot of the off-brand comedy movie “Groundhog Dave” (not rated on Rotten Tomatoes). The contiguous United States experienced its warmest December with an average of 39.3 degrees. Four heat waves swept across the nation, at times bringing temperatures 30 to 40 degrees above normal. The abnormally warm temperatures spurred unusual outbreaks of December tornadoes.
Then temperatures plunged — much like Phil’s popularity will after Feb. 2. January was colder than normal for much of the eastern United States. Last weekend, a “bomb cyclone” dropped at least 2 feet of snow in some parts of New England and Long Island — tying Boston’s single snowiest day in January on record. Washington, D.C., experienced its snowiest January in six years. An unexpected heavy slug of snow doused the Colorado and Kansas border. A cold snap in Florida resulted in falling iguanas, losing their grip because of the abnormally low temperatures and dropping from trees.
Despite the January cold spells, large areas of the United States are still running a few degrees warmer than normal for winter to date.
Coming off a cold January, February shows signs of an impressive sequel (unlike “Groundhog Dave 2”). This week, a major winter storm could bring large amounts of ice and snow from Texas to New England. Phil could see burrowable snow shortly after his annual appearance. Let’s hope Phil’s handlers pack him a sweater.
Beyond the storm, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center leans toward near-normal and warmer-than-normal temperatures for much of the eastern and southwestern United States for the rest of the month and potentially the remaining winter.
While Phil’s predictions over the years are overwhelmingly filled with holes, he does surprise us from time to time. In 2016, Phil made a nutty prediction of an early spring for only the second time in nine years. That spring, an El Niño weather pattern dominated and warmed up much of the Lower 48.
In 2021, he predicted six more weeks of winter. The United States ended up with a frigid February and moderately mild March. Overall, he was 50/50 on his forecast. He could have been more accurate if he had said he only saw half his shadow.
Phil began his public meteorology career in 1887 when he predicted an extended winter. His forecast was accurate near the Mississippi Valley but wrong in a few regions, like the Northeast, Southeast, Great Lakes, Ohio Valley and all of the West. His learning curve over the past century is questionable, as he still does not do regional forecasts.
Phil isn’t the only rodent prognosticator, but he certainly likes to hog all the attention. His website says he is the “only true weather forecasting groundhog” and that others are “just impostors.” I’m unsure if an impostor of an impostor means they are real. Either way, the others have big shoes to “phil.”
Groundhog Day-like festivities are held across North America where other beloved marmots make their weather “furr-casts,” including:
Disclaimer: The author has made claims about “Groundhog Dave” and “Groundhog Dave 2” without much knowledge about the films, much like a groundhog forecasting the weather.