Groundhog Day: Don't dig too deep into rodent-themed tradition

The Groundhog Day shadow test is only accurate about 37 per cent of the time, according to a senior climatologist at Environment Canada, but winter-weary Canadians still dig the rodent-inspired tradition.

'It's really is a crapshoot': Environment Canada forecaster throws shade on Feb. 2 tradition

Based on the satellite models for the next few months, Environment Canada's David Phillips said Canada's groundhogs may actually make accurate predictions this year. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

Most people see February 2, Groundhog Day, as winter's half-way point.

David Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada, said it doesn't matter what the first six weeks of winter were like: Canadians are fascinated to know what the rest of the season will bring.

Which is why some people across the country will be poking their heads out Thursday to see what happens when their nearest rodent prognosticator emerges from its burrow.

For those in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, the responsibility falls on Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam and Ontario's Wiarton Willie.

According to tradition, if it's a cloudy day and the groundhog doesn't see its shadow then an early spring is in the forecast. If the groundhog emerges to a sunny day and sees its shadow it will retreat back into its den for another six weeks of winter.

2017 predictions may match satellite models

"I don't think, deep down, they believe that a smelly old groundhog could actually forecast the weather," Phillips said. "You need satellites and computers … but we have our groundhogs and look for that moment on February 2."

Based on Thursday's weather forecasts, there's a fifty-fifty chance as to whether Sam and Willie will see their shadows, he said. Meanwhile, groundhogs further west in Canada, Manitoba Merv and Balzac Billy, are in for a sunny day and likely to pronounce another six weeks of winter.

Based on the models for the next few months, Phillips said there's a chance Canada's groundhogs will get it right this year.

Shubenacadie Sam looks out from his den at the wildlife park in Shubenacadie, N.S. on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"There's a greater chance winter will be over [in Eastern Canada] because of the milder conditions in February and March, compared to out west, where it looks cooler or at least near normal. So in many ways it may be that we're in bed with the ground hog."

In rodents we trust?

But Phillips said he wouldn't bet more than a loonie on it. An Environment Canada study found Groundhog Day groundhogs are actually poor prognosticators — correctly anticipating the length of the season about 37 per cent of the time.

"It's really a crapshoot," Phillips said.

"Truth be known, the groundhog doesn't emerge—they're coaxed out of their den," Phillips said. "And if they did come out they'd be looking for a mate, not whether they see their shadow or not."

That might also explain why some of the country's high-profile prognosticators are mascots or stuffed — rather than actual animals.

Who's who in Canadian Groundhogs:

Wiarton Willie - Ontario (real)

Shubenacadie Sam - Nova Scotia (real)

Manitoba Merv - Manitoba (mascot)

Balzac Billy - Alberta (mascot)