How a groundhog became a famous winter weather predictor

LISA POWELL / STAFF
Caption
LISA POWELL / STAFF

I cannot believe we’re already wrapping up the month of January and knocking on the door of February. It feels like winter has barely begun. With above-normal temperatures and little snowfall so far this season, it’s hard to imagine it ever will.

That being said, I am seeing strong signals the winter cold will finally arrive in February. While the cold is set to show up, we will have to see if we can get some storm systems to time up with it, bringing a little snow.

Keeping all that in mind, and to have a little fun, it’ll be interesting to see what the groundhog has to say this weekend. Groundhog Day is on Sunday, Feb. 2, and I’m curious to hear if it predicts an early spring or six more weeks of winter.

Groundhog Day is an interesting tradition when you think about it, but have you ever wondered where it came from?

History of the groundhog

You have to go back to early Christianity spreading through Europe. Christians participated in a tradition known as Imbolc, a pagan festival marking the beginning of spring. It occurred halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolc evolved into Candlemas and Christians believed if it was sunny on that day, there would be another 40 days of cold and snow.

Germans developed their own version of Candlemas, declaring the day sunny only if a badger saw its shadow. When Germans immigrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought the tradition to Pennsylvania. Instead of using the badger, they chose to use the native groundhog.

The first official Groundhog Day was celebrated on Feb. 2, 1886, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. History says Clymer Freas, who was the editor at the Punxsutawney Spirit, created the idea of Groundhog Day. The following year, Freas and a group known as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club made a trip to Gobbler’s Knob for the groundhog’s forecast. People have gathered in Gobbler’s Knob every year since then for the tradition.

Naming Punxsutawney Phil

Freas used his editorial influence to name the groundhog Phil. His full official name is “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.”

How accurate is Phil?

When you look back at the Groundhog’s forecast since 1887 you may, or may not be surprised to hear his accuracy is very low. With the exception of nine years of no record, the groundhog has seen his shadow 104 times and no shadow 19. That would mean he’s predicted six more weeks of winter more than 100 times. His prognostications have only been correct about 40 percent of the time.

February’s of Years Past

February has a history of being the wild card in the winter forecast. Typically the month finishes with a little more than 6 inches of snow and an average temperature in the middle to upper 30s, but there have been many years southwest Ohio has been everything but normal.

Last year brought a little bit of everything to the region. The month was filled with big swings in temperature, but also high amounts of precipitation and snowfall. Dayton had its third wettest February on record with 6.15 inches of precipitation. The city also saw accumulation of 9.4 inches of snow, which is more than 3 inches above normal for the month. Cincinnati was ranked seventh for wettest Februaries, with 7.23 inches of precipitation.

Only time will tell how the winter 2019-2020 will finish, so stay tuned to WHIO for updates.