Early Spring? Punxsutawney Phil Did Not See His Shadow

The annual ritual that spawned a movie (and a great Super Bowl ad by Jeep) — the watching for Phil the groundhog from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to see whether he does not see his shadow in which case there is an early spring —  is a bit of Americana rooted in both astronomy and Christian tradition.  Even though Phil is often wrong (it’s not exactly science), he may be getting more accurate due to climate change.  According to Climate Central, Punxsutawney Phil has been predicting earlier springs more often—14 times in the past 50 years, after only 5 times in the 73 years prior — and his shift toward earlier springs may be onto something because based on actual weather data, the six weeks after Groundhog Day are warming up in 93% of the 244 cities analyzed.

Why This Matters:  One could argue that folklore like Groundhog Day and all its antiquated pageantry undermine the public’s reliance on the actual science of weather forecasting, and perpetuates myths that have staying power and resonate with the public.  But if Phil’s predictions are changing — isn’t it another opportunity to educate the public — particularly the public that remains skeptical of science?  And at a more basic level, this quaint tradition does underscore the close connection between man and nature and the importance of the clues we should be seeing in the natural world that are signaling climate change.  It also shows that for centuries we have wanted to know not just tomorrow’s weather but what will happen in the next season too.

Where Did Groundhog Day Come From?

This U.S. and Canadian traditions of “celebrating” Groundhog Day on February 2 originate in traditions that go back for centuries, EarthSky.org explains. It is an astronomical event because it falls on a cross-quarter day, a day about midway between a solstice and an equinox — midway between the December solstice and the March equinox.  Hundreds of years ago people were more aware of the sun’s movements across the sky than we are, since their plantings and harvests depended on it, and they used traditions like this one to plan ahead just like we do today.

The tradition was brought to America by settlers from both Great Britain and Germany and historians have traced it back to early Christians in Europe, when a hedgehog was said to look for his shadow on Candlemas Day.  The day was part of old rhymes like this English one:

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again”

Or how about this Portuguese one:

“Quando a Senhora das Candeias está a rir está o inverno para vir, quando está a chorar está o inverno a acabar,” which translates to “If Our Lady of Candles smiles (Sun) the winter is yet to come, if she cries (Rain) the winter is over.”

According to NOAA, Phil has only been right 40% of the time in recent years – we will see about this year.

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