Sorry if this sounds curmudgeonly or counter to popular winter-bashing, but when Punxsutawney Phil predicts six more weeks of winter, the reaction — this season in particular — should probably be “so what?”
First, there’s no transparency to Phil’s prognostications. Until we all can hear and translate the “Groundhogese” whispered to some stranger in a top hat with no provable credentials, how do we really know Phil “said” what the handler conveys (in poetry, no less)?
Second, there’s no historical validity to the prediction. According to the National Climatic Data Center, Phil has been accurate a scant 39 percent of the time. You’ll be right more often if you flip a coin.
Third, the idea of relying on a groundhog to predict arrival of spring is centered on a fact ignored by Phil’s handlers: Hibernation.
According to a Philly.com piece penned by Mike Weilbacher, director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, male groundhogs typically rouse themselves around this time to scout for dens of potential mates, then go nod off for a few more weeks. Spotting when they first get up can be a hint that spring is near.
Phil does not stroll into view by his own volition; He is forcibly pulled out by those top-hatted handlers, whether he’s ready to rouse or not. And as to seeing his shadow — or even casting one, if seeing is not the predictive requirement— he is surrounded by glaring lights and a roaring crowd. Hardly the hallmark of a controlled experiment in shadow spotting.
Fourth, how much winter have we even had this season? The National Weather Service says our area has had all of 10.1 inches of snow in December and January combined. The region averages about 46 inches a year.
Downhill skiers around here have schussed almost entirely on man-made stuff. If you’re a cross-country skier who needs the real deal to boot up and head for woodland trails, you likely haven’t pulled the skis out of storage.
Fourth, there’s the whole question of defining “winter.”
If you accept the notion that it runs from winter solstice (the shortest day of the year in December) to spring equinox (when the day and night are equal length in March), Phil can only alter the length of winter by changing the tilt of the earth.
If winter ends when the average temperature consistently stays above freezing, it hasn’t even begun. National Weather Service data shows our average temperature was 32.6 degrees in December and 32.9 degrees in January. Heck, the average daily high in January was 38.6 degrees.
The reality is that Phil has “predicted” six more weeks of winter 103 times in 130 years, and around here that’s just playing the odds. How often do we have a real warm up before March?
Make no mistake, there’s fun to be had reveling in the whimsy of a prognosticating rodent. (Phil is death defying, too, having lived at least 120 years longer than the average groundhog).
But if spring has a fixed starting point, it’s not determined by what Phil sees, but by what you perceive.
This piece originally appeared in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, a fellow Civitas Media newspaper.