For many in the Lower 48, it’s been a year without a winter. Temperatures have stayed well above average, while snow has been scarce. The calendar says it’s the season’s midpoint, but will winter finally take control during its second half or remain in hibernation? According to groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, it’s the latter, and we’ll have an early spring.
Just after 7:25 a.m. ET Sunday, Phil emerged from his den in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, amid a steady light snow and temperatures near 30 degrees. The mangy marmot did not see his shadow, signifying early spring, according to folklore. Had he spotted his shadow, it would have meant six more weeks of winter.
Since his first prediction in 1887 through this year, Phil has seen his shadow 104 times, while he has failed to spot it on just 20 occasions. Ten years are missing from the record, but Phil has issued forecasts without exception. It is the second year in a row Phil has not seen his shadow and the first time on record in back-to-back years.
Phil’s forecast for an early spring seems fitting considering the lack of winter weather this winter so far. In many cities in the eastern United States, after a mild December, it was among the warmest Januarys on record.
Through the first 10 days of February, abnormally mild weather is expected to persist, especially in the East. Nevertheless, AccuWeather, which posted a long-range outlook on Jan. 31 to “scoop” Phil, is predicting “seasonable winter weather” in most places over the next six weeks.
Groundhog Day this year takes on extra significance as the digits of its date make up the palindrome: 02/02/2020. As a palindrome is a sequence that reads the same way backward and forward, perhaps it means Phil can’t be wrong this year. Time will tell.
Groundhog Day this year also coincides with the Super Bowl. This is only the second time Super Bowl Sunday has fallen on Feb. 2. The last time was in 2014. On that day, Phil saw his shadow, and the Seattle Seahawks routed the Denver Broncos, 43-8. Phil’s prediction for six more weeks of winter that year was spot on, as brutally cold and snowy weather lasted well into March.
The track record of Phil’s more recent predictions, however, is a disaster. In each of the last three years, the furry critter has missed the mark.
Last year, he couldn’t find his shadow and made a rare call of “early spring,” but then it was unmistakably cold. “In fact, the contiguous United States saw below average temperatures in both February and March of last year,” wrote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A “coast-to-coast” Arctic blast swept across the Lower 48 in early March, while Montana endured one of the nation’s most exceptional cold spells on record.
Meanwhile, in 2018, after a brutally cold stretch in December and the first half of January, Phil called for a wintry encore in February and March, but it turned suddenly springlike. Green leaves began emerging on trees 20 days ahead of schedule.
Similarly, in 2017, Phil predicted six more weeks of winter, and spring arrived as early as it has in memory. Flower stems sprouted in Chicago in late February, and nearly all the ice on the Great Lakes melted. It turned into the second-warmest February and ninth-warmest March on record for the Lower 48.
Over the long haul, few can agree on Phil’s accuracy.
Phil’s official website claims he has “of course” issued a correct forecast 100 percent of the time, and an analysis from AccuWeather in 2016 claimed he has been right an impressive 80 percent of the time.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes Phil’s accuracy rate over the last decade is just 40 percent, and the StormFax Almanac, which has reviewed all of Phil’s forecasts, reports the accuracy is a lowly 39 percent.
The origins of Groundhog Day are traced to the 1700s when German settlers arrived in the United States, bringing a tradition known as Candlemas Day, a celebration of the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. About a century later, it was reimagined as Groundhog Day. “According to superstition, sunny skies that day signify a stormy and cold second half of winter while cloudy skies indicate the arrival of warm weather,” explains NOAA’s website.
Phil isn’t the only rodent prognosticator. Groundhog Day-like festivities are held in several regions of North America where other beloved marmots make their predictions, including:
Georgia: General Beau Lee
Ohio: Buckeye Chuck
Ontario: Wiarton Willie
Raleigh: Sir Walter Wally
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin: Jimmy
New York: Staten Island Chuck
Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Bill
Washington, D.C.: Potomac Phil, a stuffed groundhog
The official website of Punxsutawney Phil counters that he is the “only true weather forecasting groundhog” and that others are “just impostors.”