Groundhog Day Background and Folklore

Every February 2nd crowds gather at Gobbler's Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. A groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, burrowed inside his heated simulated tree trunk, is about to thrust or be pulled into the limelight at about 7:25 am once again. The gates open at 3:00 a.m., followed by live entertainment, music and a pre-dawn fireworks display helps to ignite (hopefully not literally!) the crowd that has gathered in anticipation of Phil's forecast. The awe-inspiring fireworks are set to lively music, which is just what the crowd generally needs on a cold rural Pennsylvania morning. Phil, and others like him, makes the most celebrated weather forecast of the year usually around the crack of dawn. Has spring sprung when Phil emerges from his burrow and doesn't see his shadow? Or should he scurry back into his burrow for six more weeks of winter weather if skies are clear and fair?

Groundhog Day has its origins in an ancient celebration of a point mid-way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Superstition has it that fair weather was seen as forbearance of a stormy and cold second half to winter. The early Christians in Europe established the custom of Candlemas Day, when the clergy would bless candles and people would light them in each window of their homes to ward off the darkness of mid-winter.

But the legend of the February 2nd forecast also persisted, as captured in this old English saying:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

The trail of groundhog history actually leads back to Clymer H. Freas, city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper. In 1887, he was inspired by a group of local hunters and gourmets who held a groundhog hunt followed by a picnic barbecue of, well, you know. Anyway, Freas thought it so much fun that he wrote up the group as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and went on to promote the Punxsutawney Groundhog as the official weather forecaster. As he embellished the story year after year, other newspapers picked it up and soon everyone looked to Punxsutawney Phil for the critical prediction of when spring would return to the nation.

Historical Track Record of Punxsutawney Phil 1887–2013
Courtesy of Punxsutawney Groundhog Club
Saw Shadow No Shadow No Record
100 17 9
More Winter End of Winter ---

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Punxsutawney Phil Vs. the U.S. National Temperature 1988–2013

The table below gives a snapshot by year since 1988 whether Phil saw his shadow or not along with the corresponding monthly national average temperature departures for both February and March. The table shows no predictive skill for the groundhog during the most recent years of this analysis. Since 1993, the U.S. national temperature has been above normal 11 times in February, 12 times in March, below normal 6 times in February, 3 times in March, and near normal 4 times in February and 6 times in March.

Year Shadow February Temperature Departure March Temperature Departure
2013 No Slightly Above Slightly Below
2012 Yes Above Above
2011 No Slightly Below Slightly Above
2010 Yes Below Above
2009 Yes Above Slightly Above
2008 Yes Slightly Above Slightly Below
2007 No Below Above
2006 Yes Above Above
2005 Yes Above Slightly Above
2004 Yes Below Above
2003 Yes Below Above
2002 Yes Above Below
2001 Yes Slightly Above Tied Average
2000 Yes Above Above
1999 No Above Above
1998 Yes Above Below
1997 No Above Above
1996 Yes Above Below
1995 No Above Above
1994 Yes Below Above
1993 Yes Below Above
1992 Yes Above Above
1991 Yes Above Above
1990 No Above Above
1989 Yes Below Above
1988 No Below Above

In 2013, the contiguous United States (CONUS) average temperature of 52.4°F was 0.3°F above the 20th century average, and tied with 1980 as the 37th warmest year in the 119-year period of record. The 2013 annual temperature marked the coolest year for the nation since 2009. The 2013 CONUS average temperature was 2.9°F cooler than the 2012 average temperature, which was the warmest year on record for the nation. Since 1895, when national temperature records began, the CONUS has observed a long-term temperature increase of about 0.13°F per decade.

The February 2013 average temperature for the contiguous U.S. was 34.8°F, which was 0.8°F above the 20th century average. February temperatures were near-average for a large portion of the Lower 48, including the Northwest Coast, Central and Southern Plains, Midwest, Southeast, and much of the East Coast. Below-average temperatures were reported for the Southwest, while most of the Canadian-border states and parts of the Gulf Coast were warmer than average.

The March 2013 average temperature for the contiguous U.S. was 40.8°F, which was 0.9°F below the 20th century average. This was in stark contrast to temperatures from one year prior when March 2012 was the warmest such month on record for the nation. 2013 marked the coolest March since 2002, when the monthly nationally-averaged temperature was 2.2°F below average. Much of the eastern U.S. was cooler than average during March, with the exception of New England, which was slightly warmer than average. Eleven states in the Ohio Valley, along the Gulf Coast, and in the Southeast had March temperatures that were among their ten coolest. In fact, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina had March 2013 temperatures that were cooler than January 2013.

The Arctic Oscillation (AO) is a measure of pressure patterns across the Arctic and can relate to temperatures in the middle-latitudes, including the U.S., during the winter and spring months. The AO was in a strongly negative phase during most of the month. The monthly-averaged AO index was the most negative value on record for March and was associated with the prolonged cold air outbreak that impacted states from the Canadian border to the Southeast.

Temperatures were above average for parts of the West. Arizona, California, and Nevada each had March temperatures ranking among their ten warmest. Above-average temperatures were also observed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and New Mexico.

Take a look at the February and March 2013 maps which give a pretty good idea on the distribution of temperatures across the United States. It really isn't a "bright" idea to take a measure such as a groundhog's shadow and use it as a predictive meteorological tool for the entire United States.

February 2013 Statewide Ranks Map
February 2013 Statewide Ranks Map
March 2013 Statewide Ranks Map
March 2013 Statewide Ranks Map

Interested in doing your own analysis? More complete data are available, on Phil's Historical Predictions and the NCDC Historical Monthly Temperature Data on the Climate at a Glance Web page. The graphs are part of the NCDC Climate Monitoring Branch monthly products.

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Selected Groundhogs around the United States

Punxsutawney can't keep something this big to itself. Other prognosticating rodents are popping up to claim a piece of the action. Most of these furry "forecasters" have a following that includes locals, visitors and the media. The revered groundhogs typically preside over festival events before making their grand appearance to check for shadows on the morning of February 2nd. Some of these notable contenders have their own web pages.

Additional Groundhog Web Links
Punxsutawney Phil - Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
General Beauregard Lee - Atlanta, Georgia
Wiarton Willie - Wiarton, Ontario, Canada
Sir Walter Wally - Raleigh, North Carolina
Jimmy - Wisconsin

There are even more "groundhogs" in the running such as Octorara Orphie of Quarryville, Pennsylvania...competition right next door to Phil, Staten Island Chuck from the Staten Island Zoo, Unadilla who hails from Nebraska, Buckeye Chuck from Ohio, French Creek from West Virginia and the Cajun Groundhog from Louisiana. Ridge Lea Larry is a "stuffed groundhog" from Western New York, and the Tennessee Groundhog of Silver Point, Tennessee is actually someone dressed up like a groundhog on a motorcycle.

The film comedy, "Groundhog Day" brought in more than $100 million worldwide, and was the most popular movie in the country for two weeks in 1993. In the movie Bill Murray plays Phil, a grouchy weatherman who hates almost everything. On February 2nd, Phil gets assigned to cover the Punxsutawney Phil groundhog event. On the way back out of town after the big event, traffic is so bad that he can't get out of the town. Phil decides to stay in town overnight but the next morning he wakes up at 6:00 to his alarm clock playing the exact same song from the day before. He listens to the radio broadcast and realizes that they are playing the same program from the day before. Everything he does begins to repeat itself. And somehow, Phil is the only one who remembers anything.

The film, and groundhog day on February 2nd, are ways to have a little fun at mid-winter but generally climate records and statistics tell us that winter isn't over. Climatologically speaking the three coldest months of the year are December, January and February. So winter still has a bit to go before spring has sprung. Over the last several years, the Winter of 2009–2010 was historically active and powerful. The Winter of 2011–2012 was the 4th warmest winter for the nation and precipitation was below average. The Winter of 2003–2004 was quite cold and snowy across portions of the east especially New England with fairly mild weather across the deep south and a good deal of the southwest. Are you interested in the climatic averages or normals? See the monthly data tables in NCDC's Comparative Climatic Data to see what average monthly conditions are like in your area.

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