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Groundhog Day Predictions - Weather Lore or More?

If the groundhog emerging from its burrow on February 2 can see its shadow, spring will be delayed. A cloudy sky (and, therefore, no groundhog shadow) means spring is coming soon. Crowds gathering for Groundhog Day celebrations in the United States and Canada know the story. But is it more than a story?

A recent article in The New Scientist explains that some weather prediction folklore can be supported by scientifically observable phenomena. For example, potato farmers in the Andes predict the rainy season by noting how clear the Pleiades star cluster appears in June. Bright stars mean lots of rain. Dim stars mean a dry season.

Researchers noticed that "years when the Pleiades appear unclear correspond with El Niño years. El Niño causes markedly lower than normal rainfall in South America, but creates a layer of high cloud over much of the tropics that partially obscures the stars" ("Ethnoclimatology").

Groundhog Day predictions aren't quite as accurate as other folklore weather predictions. According to The New Scientist, the groundhog has been right only a third of the time since 1886. But Groundhog Day celebrations are a fun way to "think spring!"

What's the origin of Groundhog Day folklore? Once known as "Candlemas" on the medieval European church calendar, the day was based on two Christian festivals. Eventually the day became connected to weather prediction. In Europe, people watched badgers and bears to make their weather predictions. When the Pennsylvania Dutch came to America, they brought the tradition with them, adapting it to groundhogs or woodchucks (McCormick and Kennedy).

Today, two places in Pennsylvania are centers for Groundhog celebrations: Punxsutanwey (since the 1880s) and Quarryville (after 1900). The Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day, has added to the excitement about Groundhog Day!

Resources

"Ethnoclimatology." New Scientist 177.2380 (2003): 43. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Jan. 2012.

McCormick, Charlie T. and Kim Kennedy White. "Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore." Yoder, Don Ed. Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Vol. 3. 2nd Ed. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011. P. 963-973.

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