British Columbia

Move over Wiarton Willie, B.C. has its own groundhog forecaster now

There's Ontario's Wiarton Willie, Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam, Manitoba's Merv, Alberta's Balzac Billy — and now, Van Island Violet.

Why do we put our faith in these furry little forecasters once a year?

Van Island Violet is B.C.'s new groundhog day go-to girl. (Marmot Recovery Centre)

There's Ontario's Wiarton Willie, Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam, Manitoba's Merv, Alberta's Balzac Billy — and now, Van Island Violet. 

Not to be outdone, the rich tradition of a groundhog predicting if spring is around the corner — or not — has now spread to B.C.

"We have a long and storied history, at least three years now trying to predict the weather with our Vancouver Island marmot," said Adam Taylor, executive director with the Marmot Recovery Foundation, tongue firmly in cheek.

Taylor says groundhogs are actually marmots. The facility where Van Island Violet, as she's known, lives, is on Mount Washington.

Staff there receive marmots from the Calgary and Toronto zoos, where they are bred. The rodents are kept over the winter and returned to the wild in the summer.

The goal is to increase the population of this endangered species. In the late 1990s, there were around 30 Vancouver Island marmots. Thanks to recovery efforts, there are now almost 200.

Same hurdle every year

Taylor says on Feb. 2, for the last three years, the same hurdle arises that makes it impossible for the prognosticating to take place.

"The marmot is hibernating, therefore it cannot see its shadow," he said.

"We have a little bit of work still to do in terms of how to interpret what they are trying to tell us."

The track record is less than impressive when it comes to the accuracy rate of predictions from the country's other, more famous, woodchucks.

Spring will arrive March 20, no matter the outcomes from this years predictions. (CBC)

The Canadian Encyclopedia says that while Groundhog Day event organizers have historically predicted a 70 to 90 per cent accuracy rate, the truth is in fact much lower — Canadian groundhog predictions were a mere 37 per cent accurate. 

Yet, every year on this day we suspend disbelief, forget evidence based meteorology, and these furry little forecasters become media darlings once more.

Sensitive topic for meteorologist 

It's a topic that doesn't sit well with the CBC's Johanna Wagstaffe.

"I used to love Groundhog Day before I became a broadcast meteorologist," said Wagstaffe.

"And then, it's like they get all the credit. We have to work 364 days and then they are a celebrity for one day, and all they do is look at their shadow," she said.

Wagstaffe admits the day does add some much needed levity from B.C.'s long, wild-weather winters.

"I'm happy people get a silver lining and something to hope for before turning to the accurate models," she said.

Over on Vancouver Island, Adam Taylor says despite three years of scientific setbacks, he will continue his research.

"Whether it's about giving us hope or really just celebrating an animal  that we don't celebrate very often, I think it's wonderful. And if it gets people outside for just a few minutes, then that's awesome."


Cathy Kearney is a digital journalist with CBC News Vancouver.