Groundhog Day Background and Folklore
Every February 2nd crowds gather at Gobbler's Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. A groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, burrowed inside his heated simulated tree trunk, is about to thrust or be pulled into the limelight at about 7:25 am once again. The gates open at 3:00 a.m., followed by live entertainment, music and a pre-dawn fireworks display helps to ignite (hopefully not literally!) the crowd that has gathered in anticipation of Phil's forecast. The awe-inspiring fireworks are set to lively music, which is just what the crowd generally needs on a cold rural Pennsylvania morning. Phil, and others like him, makes the most celebrated weather forecast of the year usually around the crack of dawn. Has spring sprung when Phil emerges from his burrow and doesn't see his shadow? Or should he scurry back into his burrow for six more weeks of winter weather if skies are clear and fair?
Groundhog Day has its origins in an ancient celebration of a point mid-way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Superstition has it that fair weather was seen as forbearance of a stormy and cold second half to winter. The early Christians in Europe established the custom of Candlemas Day, when the clergy would bless candles and people would light them in each window of their homes to ward off the darkness of mid-winter.
But the legend of the February 2nd forecast also persisted, as captured in this old English saying:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
The trail of groundhog history actually leads back to Clymer H. Freas, city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper. In 1887, he was inspired by a group of local hunters and gourmets who held a groundhog hunt followed by a picnic barbecue of, well, you know. Anyway, Freas thought it so much fun that he wrote up the group as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and went on to promote the Punxsutawney Groundhog as the official weather forecaster. As he embellished the story year after year, other newspapers picked it up and soon everyone looked to Punxsutawney Phil for the critical prediction of when spring would return to the nation.
Historical Track Record of Punxsutawney Phil 1887–2012
Courtesy of Punxsutawney Groundhog Club
|Saw Shadow||No Shadow||No Record|
|More Winter||End of Winter||---|
Punxsutawney Phil Vs. the U.S. National Temperature 1988–2012
The table below gives a snapshot by year since 1988 whether Phil saw his shadow or not along with the corresponding monthly national average temperature departures for both February and March. The table shows no predictive skill for the groundhog during the most recent years of this analysis. Since 1993, the U.S. national temperature has been above normal 11 times in February, 12 times in March, below normal 6 times in February, 3 times in March, and near normal 3 times in February and 5 times in March.
|Year||Shadow||February Temperature Departure||March Temperature Departure|
|2011||No||Slightly Below||Slightly Above|
|2008||Yes||Slightly Above||Slightly Below|
|2001||Yes||Slightly Above||Tied Average|
In 2012, the contiguous United States (CONUS) average annual temperature of 55.32°F was 3.25°F above the 20th century average, and was the warmest year in the 1895-2012 period of record for the nation. The 2012 annual temperature was 1.0°F warmer than the previous record warm year of 1998. During February, the contiguous United States experienced above-average temperatures with a national average temperature of 37.7°F. This was 3.5°F above average, making it the 16th warmest February on record. Record and near-record breaking temperatures dominated the eastern two-thirds of the nation and contributed to the warmest March on record for the contiguous United States, a record that dates back to 1895. The average temperature of 50.33°F was 8.57°F above the 20th century average for March and 0.56°F warmer than the previous warmest March in 1910. Of the more than 1,400 months that have passed since the U.S. record began, only one month, January 2006, has seen a larger departure from its average temperature than March 2012. Take a look at the February and March 2012 maps which give a pretty good idea on the distribution of temperatures across the United States. It really isn't a "bright" idea to take a measure such as a groundhog's shadow and use it as a predictive meteorological tool for the entire United States.
Interested in doing your own analysis? More complete data are available, on Phil's Historical Predictions and the NCDC Historical Monthly Temperature Data on the Climate at a Glance Web page. The graphs are part of the NCDC Climate Monitoring Branch monthly products.
Selected Groundhogs around the United States
Punxsutawney can't keep something this big to itself. Other prognosticating rodents are popping up to claim a piece of the action. Most of these furry "forecasters" have a following that includes locals, visitors and the media. The revered groundhogs typically preside over festival events before making their grand appearance to check for shadows on the morning of February 2nd. Some of these notable contenders have their own web pages.
Additional Groundhog Web Links
Punxsutawney Phil - Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
General Beauregard Lee - Atlanta, Georgia
Wiarton Willie - Wiarton, Ontario, Canada
Sir Walter Wally - Raleigh, North Carolina
Jimmy - Wisconsin
There are even more "groundhogs" in the running such as Octorara Orphie of Quarryville, Pennsylvania...competition right next door to Phil, Staten Island Chuck from the Staten Island Zoo, Unadilla who hails from Nebraska, Buckeye Chuck from Ohio, French Creek from West Virginia and the Cajun Groundhog from Louisiana. Ridge Lea Larry is a "stuffed groundhog" from Western New York, and the Tennessee Groundhog of Silver Point, Tennessee is actually someone dressed up like a groundhog on a motorcycle.
The film comedy, "Groundhog Day" brought in more than $100 million worldwide, and was the most popular movie in the country for two weeks in 1993. In the movie Bill Murray plays Phil, a grouchy weatherman who hates almost everything. On February 2nd, Phil gets assigned to cover the Punxsutawney Phil groundhog event. On the way back out of town after the big event, traffic is so bad that he can't get out of the town. Phil decides to stay in town overnight but the next morning he wakes up at 6:00 to his alarm clock playing the exact same song from the day before. He listens to the radio broadcast and realizes that they are playing the same program from the day before. Everything he does begins to repeat itself. And somehow, Phil is the only one who remembers anything.
The film, and groundhog day on February 2nd, are ways to have a little fun at mid-winter but generally climate records and statistics tell us that winter isn't over. Climatologically speaking the three coldest months of the year are December, January and February. So winter still has a bit to go before spring has sprung. Over the last several years, the Winter of 2009–2010 was historically active and powerful. The Winter of 2011–2012 was the 4th warmest winter for the nation and precipitation was below average. The Winter of 2003–2004 was quite cold and snowy across portions of the east especially New England with fairly mild weather across the deep south and a good deal of the southwest. Are you interested in the climatic averages or normals? See the monthly data tables in NCDC's Comparative Climatic Data to see what average monthly conditions are like in your area.