Punxatawney Phil no rival for meteorologists

2013-01-30 15:01
Groundhog Club handler Ron Ploucha holds Punxatawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 126th celebration of Groundhog Day. (File, AP)

Groundhog Club handler Ron Ploucha holds Punxatawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 126th celebration of Groundhog Day. (File, AP)

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Washington - Groundhog Day is a fondly held tradition on the US weather calendar, even if the furry Punxatawney Phil's record of correctly predicting the weather is a bit fuzzy.

Every 2 February, the world's most famous ground hog - probably the world's only famous groundhog - makes his "prediction" based on whether he sees his shadow and is frightened back into his den. When that happens, the forecast is six more weeks of winter weather, according to folklore.

It's a 127-year-old tradition that most Americans learn about as schoolchildren. The 1993 movie Groundhog Day, which made light of the event and annual festival held in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania, gave the event global cache.

Despite his fame, Punxatawney Phil is hardly a reliable forecaster, as shown again the last two years.

In 2011, he wasn't frightened by his shadow and thus predicted an early spring. Shortly thereafter, parts of the country were hit by a heavy snow storm nicknamed the Groundhog Day Blizzard.

He was off track again last year when he predicted a long winter lasting into the middle of March. What ensued was the warmest year on record in the United States.

Poor record

All this means Phil earns no respect from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - the US weather authority - which relies on more scientific methods for its measurements.

His poor record is reason enough for officials there to doubt what others call a living barometer. It's not really a good idea to use the shadow of a groundhog to predict the weather, they say.

Jennifer Carfagno, an on-camera meteorologist for cable broadcaster The Weather Channel, feels no rivalry with Phil, though she has been to Punxatawney twice.

"Whenever I was there, he was wrong anyway," Carfagno told dpa.

The official Ground Hog Day website tells the story more thoroughly: Phil has been right only 39% of the time.

"It doesn't matter at all," Carfangno said. "Phil doesn't always get it right."

2 000 visitors expected

This year, Ground Hog Day falls on a Saturday, allowing even more coverage of the event than usual. The Weather Channel will broadcast a special programme lasting several hours, and Carfagno will cover it as if the pope were making the weather prediction.

The Weather Channel hopes millions of Americans will tune in - the kind of ratings the station only achieves during major weather events, such as hurricanes.

The Pennsylvania town expects 20 000 visitors and journalists, which would more than quadruple its population. They will have to rise early if they want to experience the prognostication live.

Shortly before sunrise Bill Deely, president of the ground hog association, will arrive dressed in a 19th-century cloak and top hat and wake the sleeping rodent to the cheers of the crowd. If he sees no shadow - because the sky is cloudy - it means spring is in the air.

"Clearly everyone is hoping for good weather," Carfagno said.

With a glance at the long-range forecast, she suggested that Phil should predict an early spring.

"That way," she said, "he could improve his record."

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