By Charles Roop
February 2, 2017
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Year after year, countless look to this marmot to complete his annual mission: Telling us whether or not winter will be hanging around for six more weeks.
"Who would believe something like that?” Ken Misner asked while he walked around Cascades Park. “Silly little furry mammal can predict the weather.”
Silly? Maybe, but is the groundhog accurate with his predictions?
FSU student Meg Van Deventer doesn’t think that Punxsutawney Phil has no control of whether or not it will be winter.
"I think that he can be fifty-fifty,” FSU student Jacob Meury said of his prediction skills.
But before we get into his track record, it's important to know where this all came from.
"Those go back to traditions that are early Christian and Paganistic from Germany,” Danny Brouillette, Service Climatologist from the Florida Climate Center, said.
Centuries ago, the groundhog sought for observation was actually a hedgehog in Europe. The desire for any hints came around the time Christians gathered to celebrate a holiday called Candlemas. It also represented the half-way point between winter and spring.
"People at that point are getting tired of winter and look to the most common creatures around to maybe give them some insight as to whether winter or that time of darkness would end,” Brouillette said. "I think it's kind of an interesting cultural tradition.”
It was a tradition that made its way in Pennsylvania as early as the 1700s. But settlers did not find any hedgehogs. Instead, they only found groundhogs. They used them as a reference, and the rest was history.
Brouillette said Punxsutawney Phil became a little more popular across the country after the movie Groundhog Day was released in 1993.
So, is the ‘hog right? According to the National Weather Service, he got the forecast right last year. But, overall, he’s not that accurate. Brouillette says he's right only about 40 percent of the time.
"You have better odds of making a good forecast as to whether it will be an early spring or a longer winter just by the flip of a coin,” Brouillette said.
It’s also good to know that the prediction made by Phil may not apply to the southeastern U.S.
For 2017, Phil did see his shadow, which would mean six more weeks of winter. But what do the human experts think?
The Climate Prediction Center is calling for a higher likelihood of above normal temperatures across the eastern U.S., but below normal rainfall for the southeastern U.S. Brouillette points out that the CPC is calling for greater odds of above normal rainfall for the Ohio River Valley, which includes western Pennsylvania (where Punxsutawney resides).
La Niña conditions are beginning to relax and enter more of a neutral phase. The southern U.S. usually encounters drier conditions are warmer temperatures overall during a La Niña phase, but there will be lag time before the neutral conditions are observed.
On the topic of observation methods, it turns out that Phil may not be making his own predictions. Brouillette says there is a group called “The Inner Circle”, a select group of people associated with Punxsutawney Phil Groundhog Club. This group makes the call.
“They are the ones who actually decide what Phil will see, and they make that happen,” he said. “It’s kind of like a black box of criteria they use to decide what his prediction will be.”
Phil is a tradition in Pennsylvania, but when it comes to accuracy with long-range predictions, it may be best to stick to humans with degrees.
"He's a groundhog,” Van Deventer said. “I trust a weather man more than a groundhog."
We appreciate that confidence!