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Mann: Groundhog lore holds some weather truth

The new storm that brought record snows to the Upper Midwest, Ohio Valley and Northeast yesterday has been dubbed the Groundhog Day storm. It wasn’t because the system hit those areas on Groundhog Day, but many are saying that it felt more like the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day” as it seems like they’ve experienced this type of weather a hundred times this year.

As of early Wednesday, more than a foot of new snow, combining with 20- to 40-mph winds, were leading to massive flight delays and other travel restrictions in many parts of the northern United States. Ice was also a problem across parts of the Midwest and the East.

The world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvania woodchuck, made his annual appearance Wednesday. Each year, he is hauled out of his fake tree stump on Gobbler’s Knob, about two miles east of town, at precisely 7:25 a.m. to see if he can see his shadow. The town celebrates this event with a festive atmosphere of music and food.

According to the legend, if Phil supposedly catches his shadow, he’s scared back into his den for six more weeks of slumber. The winter season, in turn, will drag on for least another six weeks. If Phil does not see his shadow, then spring is right around the corner. Believe it or not, approximately 90 percent of the time, Phil sees his shadow.

Like in most examples of weather folklore, there is an ounce of truth in Phil seeing his shadow and therefore predicting six more weeks of winter. Clear skies at this time of year usually mean that a strong cold ridge of high pressure is over the area. There is a definite six-week cycle to high pressure ridges. They often take two weeks to build, two more weeks to peak and two additional weeks to move out of a particular region or zone. Hence, perhaps, six more weeks of winter.

The legend of Groundhog Day is based on an old Scottish couplet: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” Candlemas Day is a Christian holiday that celebrates Mary’s ritual purification and the presentation of the Christ in the temple. They believed that if the sun came out on that particular day, winter would last for six more weeks.

In Punxsutawney, Pa., Phil did not see his shadow Wednesday. Based on the legend, spring is right around the corner and the crowds were cheering as Phil came out of his den.

In our area, I’m not sure if the folks here wanted Phil to see his shadow. Many are asking if winter is over. As mentioned earlier, the second half of the winter of 2010- ’11 will not be as snowy as the first half. I still expect to see some snow before the season is done, but we may have to wait until mid to late February for any significant snowfall.

Contact meteorologist Randy Mann at randy@longrange