It's Groundhog Day!

It's time once again to celebrate the midpoint of the winter season, that being Groundhog Day. Not only is this a holiday that always sparks discussion in the weather lab but it is also a comical movie featuring Bill Murray and Phil the Groundhog illustrating the lighter side of the annual observance in Punxsutawney, PA at Gobbler's Knob. Here's a link to that official site for Groundhog Day.  Of course, there are many other fury animals and even some reptiles that get put on display with their own predictions as to what kind of weather is ahead. The big questions that everyone always seems to ask are what happens if Phil or Jimmy in Sun Prairie see their shadow and how accurate are they?

For starters, folklore states if Phil sees his shadow, that indicates 6 more weeks of winter are ahead. On the other hand, if it is cloudy and Phil does not see that shady image of himself, then spring is coming early. This annual pulling of a groundhog out of its burrow got its start back in 1887 in Punxsutawney as a fun way to observe Candlemas. This holiday has German roots and was observed at the halfway point of winter by folks setting candles in their windows, in hopes of brightening things up (and probably to chase away the winter blues). Of course over the past 122 years, Groundhog Day has grown quite a bit in popularity with thousands of folks showing up well before the break of dawn in western Pennsylvania to watch Phil be put on display, and whispering a catchy proclamation of his forecast to his handlers known as the Inner Circle.

So are these predictions ever correct? A study done by the National Climatic Data Center found that Punxsutawney Phil was on target about 39% of the time. In addition, over the past 100+ years, 87% of the time he has called for 6 more weeks of winter, leaving only 13% of the time saying an early spring is ahead. Taking into account the past 10 years, Phil only predicted twice that a warm up was forthcoming. Thus the skill in these forecasts are not that great, considering you've got better odds just going by what the calendar says. Nevertheless, I went a bit more in-depth to compare both Phil's and Jimmy in Sun Prairie's forecasts along with what actually happened in North Central Wisconsin over the recent years.

Year          Phil                     Jimmy                   End Result in Wausau
2009     More Winter       More Winter                 ?????????
2008     More Winter       Early Spring               Cold & Wintry
2007     Early Spring      More Winter           Cold Feb/Warm March
2006     More Winter       Early Spring           Around Avg-Still Winter
2005     More Winter       Early Spring          Warm Feb/Cold March
2004     More Winter       Early Spring          Around Avg-Still Winter


It appears at least for the past 5 years Phil and Jimmy have been making opposite predictions. In reality, I wouldn't put much stock into the Groundhog's forecast. Instead, I would base my outlook on what the weather pattern has been doing for much of the winter and go along with what the group of computer models point to for the rest of the cold weather season. Taking that into account, it appears the worst of the frigid conditions for the season are just about over. Outside of a few more cold intrusions between now and March, temperatures should finally stay at or above zero with more days actually approaching if not topping the freezing mark. On the other hand, the threat of snow and mixed precipitation is still in the cards. So even though we have had a break lately, I would keep the shovel and snow blower handy for at least another couple of months. With that in mind, I'd say more winter weather is ahead...but it shouldn't be as harsh as what we have already dealt with.

Here are a few other fun links to check out:
National Climatic Data Center-Groundhog Day Special Report
Jimmy in Sun Prairie
Wisconsin Historical Site on Jimmy the Groundhog
Buckeye Chuck
General Beauregard Lee

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