By Woodrow Polston
Each year, those of us who welcome warmer temperatures and fairer weather, superstitiously cross our fingers in the hopes for a shorter winter. On Feb. 2, at the emergence of a groundhog, many people anxiously wait to hear what the prediction will be. While the accuracy is often questionable, is is always either six more weeks of winter, or an early spring. So when did this tradition of weather forecasting begin?
Celebrated in both the United States and Canada, Groundhog Day is a tradition that dates back to Feb. 2, 1887. the rodent meteorologist first emerged to declare his initial forecast at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its hole on this day and sees its shadow, it becomes scared and runs back into its burrow, predicting six more weeks of winter weather. If there is no shadow, it means an early spring. So how did this become a national observance?
According to History.com, Groundhog Day has its roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas, when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on this concept by selecting an animal, which was the hedgehog, as a means of predicting weather. Once they came to America, German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition, although they switched from hedgehogs to groundhogs, which were plentiful in the Keystone State.
Here in the Midwest, Spotting one on Groundhog Day can be as uncertain as Missouri weather. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, they will snooze in an underground den below the frost line if the weather is icy. Although, a sunny warm day might wake them from hibernation for a look around. Groundhogs, also called woodchucks and whose scientific name is Marmota monax, typically weigh 12 to 15 pounds and live six to eight years. They often dig dens under rocks, tree roots, and embankments. Many mammals and other types of wildlife use their abandoned dens as homes.
The groundhog goes into hibernation in the late fall, during this time, their body temperatures drop significantly, their heartbeats slow from 80 to five beats per minute and they can lose 30 percent of their body fat during the winter. When they emerge form hibernation, they dine as vegetarians on grasses, flowers and fruits. Their mating season also begins soon after the winter is over.
So how accurate are the predictions of the groundhog? Data from the Stormfax Almanac reveals that the groundhog’s six week prognostication is accurate about 39% of the time. Here in Missouri, due to our sometimes unpredictable changes in weather, the groundhog would be a great candidate should we experience a shortage of meteorologists.