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Can we rely on Punxsutawney Phil to predict the weather? 

Elizabeth Preske
February 01, 2018

It's that time of year again — on February 2, the world will turn to a groundhog to get the weather forecast for the next six weeks.

When he comes out of his burrow at Gobbler's Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the resident woodchuck (named Punxsutawney Phil, of course) will tell us — based entirely on whether or not he sees his shadow — if we can expect an early spring.

If it seems odd to dutifully rely on a rodent to predict the weather in February and March, well, it is. But is Phil any more or less accurate than your local, human meteorologist? Fortunately, we have more than 130 years of data to find out. 

How Does Groundhog Day Work?

At 7:25 a.m. on Groundhog Day, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle will bring Punxsutawney Phil out for the year's most-watched weather forecast. If Phil sees his shadow, he will retreat back into hibernation to avoid six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, however, our favorite weatherman will stay above ground, regarding the cloudy skies as a sign that spring is coming early.

How Did Groundhog Day Start?

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the history of Groundhog Day can be traced back to an early Christian celebration of the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Legend says that on this Candlemas Day, the appearance of the sun indicated prolonged bad weather, while clouds were a sign of spring to come.

The Romans then introduced this tradition to the Germans, who believed they could better predict the weather based on a hedgehog's ability to cast a shadow on Candlemas Day, reported the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. When German emigrants moved to Pennsylvania, they swapped their hedgehog for an animal more common to that region: the groundhog.

The Punxsutawney Spirit was the first to officially observe this occasion in 1886, and in 1887, the newspaper's city editor recognized Punxsutawney Phil as the authoritative rodent on this annual weather forecast.

Is the Groundhog Accurate?

Unfortunately, we cannot accurately predict the weather based on what Phil does or does not do, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Based on their report, the furry meteorologist has gotten the forecast right only 47 percent of the time since 1988.

Stormfax Almanac sheds even more light on Punxsutawney Phil's inability to forecast the weather: since the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club started recording his predictions in 1887, he has been inaccurate 61 percent of the time.

However unreliable this weather forecast is, Groundhog Day is a beloved tradition that is not going away anytime soon. And whether Phil is right or wrong, we can at least rest assured that spring will officially be here in no more than six weeks — even if the poor fellow gets frightened by his shadow.

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