Groundhogs Disagree on Winter Prognosis


Photo of Punxsutawney Phil courtesy

Groundhogs popped their heads up in a number of places across America today. The verdict: six more weeks of winter. Or maybe not.

The tradition of Groundhog Day has its roots in an old Scottish saying, “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year,” National Geographic News reported three years ago. And so on February 2, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the world waits for the news: Did the groundhog see its shadow? If so, then we may expect winter temperatures to last another six weeks.

I did a check of Google News to see how widely the groundhog forecast is reported. There were more than 1,200 articles about it published on the Web today.

groundhog facts.png“Punxsutawney Phil sees shadow; winter to continue,” was the headline over the Associated Press report. “The world’s most famous groundhog saw his shadow Monday morning, predicting that this already long winter will last for six more weeks,” the wire service declared.

Apparently something like 13,000 people gathered to witness Phil’s prognostication at dawn today. Phil has become quite an industry in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. You can read all about it on his official Web site.

News of Phil’s long-range forecast flashed across the globe, reported by media in Europe, India, Australia, and South Africa. Reuters and Agence France-Presse wired the news to thousands of media subscribers.

In the UK, The Telegraph’s Web site reported that Groundhog Day, “the world’s most eccentric weather forecasting system,” has predicted that America is in for another six weeks of winter. The Telegraph said Sheldon Carr, an engineer from Newburg, Wisconsin, was unable to explain the appeal of Groundhog Day, especially to non-Americans. “There’s no reason,” he said. “No one understands the Yanks.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Bright Green Blog reported that across America other groundhogs also were out predicting the weather today. But they were not in agreement.

“Atlanta’s General Beauregard Lee, whom the Journal-Constitution says has only a 31 percent accuracy rate, predicted an early spring. So did Staten Island Chuck, who took the opportunity this year to bite New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, drawing blood,” the blog said. Joining Phil in predicting a longer winter, the Bright Green Blog continued, were Woodstock Willie of Woodstock, Illinois, Jimmy the Groundhog of Sun Prarie, Wisconsin, and Sir Walter Wally of Raleigh, North Carolina.


The Wall Street Journal was less interested in the weather than the economic outlook. “Groundhog Day 2009: How Many More Weeks of Recession?” was the headline over the Journal’s Real Time Economics blog.

It got me wondering what the National Geographic angle on the story would be. How did the groundhog come to be the weather expert?

The Washington Post provided the answer: “Farmers used to look for the reappearance of hibernating animals to tell them when spring had arrived,” the Post said today. “Early American settlers relied on the groundhog.”

Can groundhogs really give us an indication of how much more winter is in the cards?

NGS photo by Robert Sisson

According to the National Geographic News report of 2006, Phil’s forecasts are hogwash. “Records of the groundhogs’ predictions have been kept since 1887,” we reported. “At a meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Atlanta … one scientist said the rodents are right only 39 percent of the time.”

I checked the AMS home page to see how they were reporting today’s groundhog outlook for winter. They seem to be ignoring it.


NGS photo by Robert Sisson

Changing Planet

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn