For a rodent billed as the “seer of seers,” Punxsutawney Phil’s track record isn’t great.
The groundhog guru has properly prognosticated only three of the last six winters, at least for western Pennsylvania.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings in the wonderful land of Punxsutawney,” said Bob Larson, meteorologist for Accu-Weather Inc., a commercial weather service based in State College.
Club members claim the rotund rodent is never wrong.
“The weather is in the eye of the beholder,” Punxsutawney Groundhog Club President Bud Dunkel said when confronted with Phil-debunking data.
According to tradition, if Phil sees his shadow, it means six more weeks of winter. If not, spring is right around the corner.
That’s based on a German superstition that an animal casting its shadow Feb. 2 - the Christian holiday of Candlemas - means bad weather is to come.
But in the 110 years since German farmers began the festival in Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day has evolved into an elaborate show of hoodwinkery.
Before the big day, the members of the club’s Inner Circle decide amongst themselves whether Phil will see his shadow, rain or shine. Despite an overcast sky last year, the club announced that the shadow appeared - fireworks were set off to simulate sunrise.
And how do the prognostications pass from Phil - who would rather be hibernating in his custom-made burrow at Gobbler’s Knob - to the top-hatted club members?
Telepathically, insists Dunkel.
“Did you ever have a spiritual passage of thought from someone that you just understood? This transmission of thought is actually in his language which we call ‘groundhogese.’ He doesn’t actually say anything,” Dunkel said.
Only once since 1991 has Phil failed to see his shadow, suggesting spring was imminent.
That forecast, in 1995, turned out to be a bad guess.
Average temperatures in February that year wound up falling 2.2 degrees below the 30-year norm of 26.1 degrees, according to records in Pittsburgh, 80 miles southwest of Punxsutawney.
March was 3.4 degrees above the norm of 39.4, but only because temperatures jumped to the 70s in mid-March, six weeks after Phil’s announcement.
Records showed that Phil was also wrong in 1991 and 1992.
Temperatures were way above normal in February of both of those years, despite Phil’s prediction of six more weeks of winter.
Meteorologist Larson casts an amused eye on the club’s forecasts of spring, noting that they tend to reflect winter’s reality.
He believes this year’s mild winter in the East - unlike the Midwest’s cold, fierce weather - will prompt the club to forecast an early spring.
“I might not be able to predict the weather,” he said, “but I can predict what old Phil will say.”