Groundhog Day: What do meteorologists think?

If you believe the hype, on Feb. 2 groundhogs predict what the environment is brewing, giving weather professionals the day off as their jobs are turned over to rodents for the day.

The rodents have a spotty record, but weather experts say predicting the weather is no easy gig

Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, saw his shadow on Monday, predicting six more weeks of winter weather. Meteorologists have fun with the day, but don't feel much professional rivalry. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

"What blizzard? It's a couple of flakes. I make the weather!"

It may be a bit over the top, but Bill Murray, as a bitter TV weather personality in Groundhog Day, may have a point. It is, after all, human professionals, not furry rodents, who analyze what Mother Nature has in store. 

But if you believe the hype, on Feb. 2 groundhogs take over from weather professionals in delivering long-range forecasts. 

This year, Groundhog Day’s furry forecasters reached a consensus on how long winter will last, with three of five seeing their shadows — indicating another six weeks of cold-weather.

Meteorologists in Canada were busy elsewhere on Monday, as a winter storm that dropped 15 to 30 centimetres of snow battered southern Ontario and winter storm and flash-freezing warnings blanketed the Maritimes.

Forecasting a tough job

Environment Canada senior climatologist Dave Phillips notes the overall record for Ontario’s Wiarton Willie groundhog is spotty, but also says predicting the weather is a tough gig.

"His batting average is not that great … but hey, neither is ours," he joked.

CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe jokingly echoed the sentiment.

“I've also been known to grind my teeth before giving a forecast," she said. Her research suggests groundhogs are only about 33 per cent accurate in their predictions.

So, meteorological professionals aren’t too worried that the prognosticating rodents are out for their jobs. 

"I've never met a meteorologist who is anti-groundhog," said Chris Scott, chief meteorologist at the Weather Network. "We don't feel too threatened."

While the groundhogs don’t always provide an accurate prediction, they do get people hopeful about spring, and in groundhog communities like Wiarton, Ont., and Punxsutawney, Pa., they get people out of the house and into a social setting in the dead of winter.

“The annual forecast from the little rodent isn't very scientific, but people at this time of year are looking for some hope that spring is just around the corner. The groundhog forecast can provide that hope depending on what happens when he pops out of his hole," said CBC meteorologist John Sauder. "As a meteorologist, I don't place a whole lot of stock in the groundhog's prediction."

'Don't like the forecast? Blame the rodent'

Check out what other weather professionals have to say about Groundhog Day:

"Groundhog Day is a way for people to embrace the winter. In Pennsylvania, in Nova Scotia, I've seen the way those communities embrace those festivals. I’m never really too concerned about the forecast. When we talk about spring, we talk about a daytime high getting into the double digits. We don't see that here until the end of March or early April, which is past the six-week prediction." — Geoff Coulson, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada. 

"Groundhog day is very effective at letting us know whether it is currently sunny or cloudy in Wiarton without the bother of having to actually look up at the sky," CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland said in jest. "Shadow means no sun right? As for an actual weather forecast, stick with the professional (non-rodent) prognosticators."

"To be honest, I welcome Groundhog Day every year. It kind of takes the pressure off of us meteorologists, at least for one day. Don't like the forecast? Blame the rodent!" — Ryan Snoddon, CBC meteorologist

With files from The Canadian Press


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