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This Week on Earth: February 2-8

February 4, 2016 Comments Off on Groundhog Day: Can a rodent be a meteorologist? All Other Stories, News

Groundhog Day: Can a rodent be a meteorologist?

By Jessie Moravek

It’s early February in an election year, and this week thousands of people gathered early in the morning, waiting for what will prove to be one of the most powerful predicative events in 2016. No, not the Iowa Caucus. I’m talking about Groundhog Day.

Every February 2 in communities across the U.S., most famously Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, thousands of people gather to watch as groundhogs look for their shadows and tell us how long winter is going to last. Yes, we still actually do this. But why did we decide that a groundhog, of all things, can predict the weather? And, for that matter, what the heck is a groundhog?

Let’s start with the second question. The North American groundhog (Marmota monax) is a member of the ground squirrel family that’s found throughout northeastern and central North America. Unlike their bushy-tailed cousins the gray squirrels, groundhogs are burrowers. Their burrows can be up to 46 feet long and five feet deep, and are for sleeping, raising young, and hibernating. Groundhogs eat grasses, berries, and nuts and usually live about six years in the wild.

Groundhogs hibernate, which means they spend the winter in a state of metabolic depression. Sometime in October, groundhogs go into a deep sleep that dramatically drops their body temperature and heart rate. This conserves energy until the weather gets warm in the spring, at which point groundhogs wake up again and emerge out of their burrows.

This is where natural history and folklore begin to intersect. Apparently, in early February the ground warms up enough to wake up groundhogs (don’t we wish?). As tradition has it, if a groundhog pokes his head out of his burrow and sees his shadow, he goes back to sleep and we have another six weeks of winter. If the day is cloudy, he stays out and spring comes early.

Who gave groundhogs the authority to predict the weather? A fat and furry rodent doesn’t seem any more qualified than Tom Skilling from the Chicago Weather Center.

Northwestern students tend to agree. According to Weinberg senior Nicole Martinez, “I think it’s irrational to believe that groundhogs can predict the weather.”

“I’ve never understood the tradition of Groundhog’s Day at all,” agreed Weinberg senior Kolton Boothman.

Rationality aside, in 19th century America this made a little bit of sense. February 2 was already Candlemas day, which is the Catholic celebration of Jesus’ presentation at the temple. It was also the Celtic festival of Imbolc, which was the seasonal turning point in the Celtic calendar where everybody prayed for fertility. And at the end of January, other pagan religions in Germany and Scandinavia celebrated the hibernation of the bear as a forbearer of spring.

See a pattern here? On February 2, the Catholics gave everyone a holiday, the Celts celebrated the turn of the seasons, and everyone else in Europe worshipped hibernating bears. Still a stretch? Yeah, I agree.

Regardless, several Pennsylvania German communities decided those ancient traditions pointed to a groundhog weather prediction service. These communities started celebrating groundhogs on Candlemas day (February 2) in the early 1800s.

Since its conception, Groundhog Day has spread beyond rural Pennsylvania and become a tradition across the US. The holiday gained momentum with the 1993 movie of the same name, and since then high-profile groundhogs in several cities have established annual weather predictions.

The most famous celebration is in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil has been predicting the weather since 1887 (it’s probably not the same groundhog…but you never know). Is Phil accurate? According to USA Today, he’s been wrong 15 times out of 28 since 1988. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agrees, stating that Phil has “shown no predictive skill” since the ‘80s.

How accurate will Phil’s predictions for an early spring be this year? We’ll just have to wait and find out.

 
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