Wake up, Phil… It#039;s Groundhog Day

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 1, 2003

Small, furry animal to determine American climate's future

Today is the day when one of America's most bizarre animal celebration/weather prediction ceremonies occurs. Groundhog's Day, which has somehow made it onto American calendars and even onto the big screen.

The premise is simple: Today, a small beast called a groundhog will be pulled from a hutch in Punxsutawney, Penn., by top-hatted men from something called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

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The reason? To determine whether the tiny flabby creature is able to discern his own shadow. If he sees it, he is said to regard it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather would, and would therefore, return to his hole. If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground.

This simple event has become a tourism boon of epic proportions for an otherwise unknown Pennsylvania town and was the backdrop for a movie starring Bill Murray.

According to the elaborate official Website of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the actual prediction is made by a banker named Bill Cooper. He holds the squirming little creature -- scientific name, "Marmota monax" -- up to his ear and "interprets" whatever screeching noises come from a groundhog into an analysis of whether the beast's shadow is visible.

There are 18 other white males who make up the "inner circle" of groundhog tenders, each with an elaborate title such as "Big Flake Maker," and "Stump Warden."

Frank Mathews of Banks has no such elaborate title, but as a well known Pike County weather watcher, Mathews is certainly an expert on whether an early spring is coming. He said Groundhog Day is more public relations hype than actual science.

"I've been following it for a number of years -- I'll be 80 this summer -- whether he sees his shadow or not, we'll still have more winter," he said. "It's just a saying that's been passed down through time."

According to Mathews, any time predictions are made about early spring, there's a 50-50 chance of getting it right.

"You'll miss it as many times as you hit it," he said.

Mathews uses another technology to test the weather.

"My wife, Doris, had the best idea," he said. "Stick your arm out the window and if it gets wet, it's raining or it's going to rain. If it's dry, it might rain."

The real weather news of late, Mathews said, was the incredible lack of rain in January.

"This January has been the lightest rain in a long time. They say it's the fifth driest on record when they broadcast the weather in Montgomery, but they've had a lot of rain up there that we haven't had."

As far as Pike County's rainfall in January, Mathews said the area is approaching dangerously thin levels.

"I've had a half an inch for the whole month of January," he said. "That's my definition of drought . This was the driest January in my lifetime. It's not uncommon to have 3 or 4 inches on a normal January."

The results of the sparse rainfall are evident from the poor development of local flora and fauna.

"This is the first year I've not seen a pecan made. I've not seen the first one," he said. "A pecan should make about every other year, but I've never seen it completely fail. I've been on this lot 50 years and there are some old trees on it. I've always been able to eat a few off of one or two of those trees, but not this year."

Still, the mysterious groundhog doesn't address weather subtleties such as precipitation. Rather, the Pennsylvania town that claims to be able to predict the weather for the rest of the nation only makes a forecast about whether or not more winter is in store. For that, Mathews said, you don't need a very sophisticated analysis.

"I've been hearing of groundhog's day all my life," he said. "I never have seen it work out that way much. If you keep guessing it, you'll hit it once in a while."