Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil Predicts Early Spring: Ya Think?

When it’s the first of February but the eaves are dripping, you know things are a little weird.

So it came as no surprise when famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his tree-trunk cage at Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania, blinked sleepily, and then tried to bugger off. His handlers looked carefully and then announced, “There is no shadow to be cast! An early spring is my forecast!”

Huffington Post relates that the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club is touting the 2016 event as “Phil’s 130th prognostication.”

Over 30,000 Groundhog fans attended the ceremony in the small central Pennsylvania town. The ceremony was made famous by the 1994 cult classic Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day. But in observing this weird tradition, one inevitably wonders how did it all start?

According to History, the event originated with a Christian tradition called Candlemas day. Clergy would hand out candles that they had blessed, as gifts to help their congregation through the cold, dark months. The length of winter depended on the length of the wick. The Germans took this tradition and inexplicably added a hedgehog. When immigrants came to Pennsylvania, they found no hedgehogs. They opted for the closest relative. (Foregoing the porcupine, for obvious reasons.)

Also called woodchucks and bearing the scientific label of Marmota monax, a ground hog tips the scales at 12 to 15 pounds. They are sometimes kept as pets and can live six to eight years. They are vegetarians. Males emerge from hibernation in February to look for a mate before going back to bed until March. It was perhaps this habit that made them the most likely candidates to predict the weather.

Perhaps lacking for a better story, in 1887, a newspaper editor who was an avid Groundhog Club member declared that Phil was America’s weather-forecasting groundhog.

However, it was the 1994 film that brought international attention to Gobbler’s Knob. Film critic Roger Ebert said, “‘Groundhog Day’ is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable.”

“When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like Groundhog Day to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something.”

RealClear Politics compared Donald Trump to Bill Murray’s character in the film. In the article, “Donald Trump’s Groundhog Day”, writer Carl Cannon points out that Murray’s character has a lot in common with Trump, with nasty one-liners and a patronizing air. Cannon also points out that Trump seemed to experience an epiphany when he lost the Iowa primary to Ted Cruz. He suddenly became gracious. He thanked Iowa. “We love you,” he said.

It’s a stretch, but the comparison is interesting.

One cannot help but imagine that Punxatawny Phil’s job is going to get easier. This year, in many parts of America, spring is already here. We may have another blizzard or two, but it all feels wrong. The birds are singing. Thunderstorms are happening across the Midwest. There are floods and tornadoes. Those of us who have always spent the month of February shoveling snow and wishing for spring are not sure what to think.

In a tongue-in-cheek article, Improbable Research covers what they have labeled, “The Groundhog Oscillation.” It included the following list.

“The observations made on Groundhog Day of most every year for over a century have recorded whether Punxsutawney Phil (marmota monax, also known as the groundhog, woodchuck, or whistle-pig;) ‘sees’ or ‘does not see’ his shadow. Thus, the data represents a series of binary events.”

Improbably Research indicates that “Phil’s observations are ideal for global change studies, for a number of reasons:”

  • There is a temporally long baseline of measurements, extending back to approximately 1888.
  • The instrument (Phil) is relatively cheap to maintain (though at times a bit hazardous to an untrained operator).
  • The instrument does not require the unnecessary expense of being satellite or rocket borne (nor the further expense that would entail in complying with other standards (PETA, OSHA, etc.).
  • The instrument operates at middle latitudes, where upkeep and maintenance are considerably cheaper than at equatorial or high latitudes.
  • No (extensive) additional funding is required to maintain the instrument. Public donations and support are nearly sufficient to fund the entire operation (especially with the recent added support due to Phil’s Hollywood movie career, which consisted of a starring role alongside Bill Murry and Andie McDowell in the film Groundhog Day).
  • The instrument is robust, light (less than 20 lbs.), small (< 3 cubic ft.), and relatively attractive.

Despite the humor behind this, one gets the niggling feeling there may be some truth to it. Perhaps the human race can learn something from making the same mistakes, over and over. Roger Ebert said the following.

“Tomorrow will come, and whether or not it is always Feb. 2, all we can do about it is be the best person we know how to be. The good news is that we can learn to be better people.”

[Photo via Associated Press]