On February 2nd, many people gather before sunrise to catch a glimpse as to whether a select group of the species Marmota monax -- more commonly known as a groundhog -- will see his or her shadow. According to tradition, when a groundhog emerges from its burrow and doesn’t see its shadow, it means spring will come early. Conversely, spotting its shadow means we can expect six more weeks of winter.
Groundhog Day has evolved into a true media fanfare. Even Investors Bank has gotten involved in the holiday by becoming a sponsor of the Staten Island Zoo's would-be weatherperson. As Phil Connors (character played by Bill Murray) from the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, said, “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”
How Did Groundhog Day Begin?
February 2nd falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. As such, this day was honored by both ancient and modern traditions. The Celts celebrated this day with a festival called Imbolc which marked the beginning of spring. Ancient Christians commemorated it with a tradition called Candlemas Day or the Festival of Lights. Then the Germans added their own spin by selecting the hedgehog as a means to predict weather. The German settlers brought this custom to Pennsylvania and continued it by using the local groundhog.
The first official Groundhog Day was celebrated in 1887 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It was the idea of the local newspaper editor, Clymer Freas. He was a member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. For the initial celebration, the members hiked to a site called Gobbler’s Knob, where the very first of a long line of Punxsutawney Phil’s became the bearer of bad news when he saw his shadow. Today, the celebration in Punxsutawney in attended by thousands and the festivities are presided over by local dignitaries known as the Inner Circle who don top hats while conducting the official ceremony in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect.
How Accurate Are Forecasts of the Groundhog?
According to Dave Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, “relying on a groundhog to predict weather patterns is just marginally better than flipping a coin.” Phillips said, “We just want to believe…it’s really just ‘alternative facts.’”
Accurate or not, the tradition of Groundhog Day has spread to many locations throughout the country. Each location tracks and boasts about the accuracy of their own local weather forecaster.
The results vary. The most famous, in large part due to the movie, Groundhog Day, is Punxsutawney Phil. Every year, Phil makes guest appearances on the morning talk show circuit. Adding to his celebrity stature, he also had the honor of being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.
The accuracy rate of Phil’s predictions varies depending upon whom you ask – the Inner Circle claims that he is “incapable of error, so his accuracy is 100%.” However, according to the StormFax Almanac, Phil has been correct just 39% of the time.
So If You Can’t Trust Phil, Who Can You Trust?
Don’t look to Raleigh, North Carolina’s groundhog, Sir Walter Wally, who has been wrong seven out of the past ten years. A bit more reliable is Ohio’s official weather predicting whistle pig, Buckeye Chuck, who has been right 75% of the time. Even more reliable is Atlanta’s General Beauregard Lee who reportedly has a 94% accuracy rate.
If we look at our local talent of furry weather predictors, we have New Jersey’s Middlesex County Milltown Mel at 66% and Essex Ed of the Turtle Back Zoo at 83%. Then, at the Staten Island Zoo you can find Chuck (real name Charles G. Hogg) who has an 80% accuracy rate, including a streak of seven straight correct predictions dating back to 2010. Investors Bank has a presence at this event each year.
In the end, why do we have so much hoopla around and celebrations over Groundhog Day, especially given the fact that the National Climatic Data Center has decisively concluded that groundhogs cannot predict weather? Some may say the same about their human counterparts! In the end, Groundhog Day is a great way to get children interested in the science of weather and hopefully inspire our next generation of meteorologists.
Investors Bank and the Investors Foundation have sponsored the Annual Groundhog Day celebration at the Staten Island Zoo for the past five years. The Foundation has awarded a grant that will help maintain the Zoo’s Groundhog Habitat. The habitat is equipped with a solar-powered, technologically advanced weather station. The Bank also supports the Zoo’s community outreach to local schools which includes a series of educational programs about meteorology, climate, and the environment.
Mariano, Willoughby, “Metro Atlanta groundhog boasts more accuracy than Punxsutawney Phil.”, Politifact.com, 2/4/2011
“February 02, 1887: First Groundhog Day”, History.com, 2/2012
Bogart, Nicole, “Marmot meteorologist or furry fraud? How accurate are Groundhog Day predictions”, Global News, 2/2/2017
Thieme, Kathleen, “Groundhog Day 2017: Punxsutawney Phil vs. Chuck: Who is the better forecaster?”, Staten Island Advance, 2/1/2017
McCarthy, Craig, “Groundhog Day: Which of these 3 NJ woodchucks is most accurate?” NJ.com, 2/2/2016