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A common American groundhog at the Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Arizona. Carol Highsmith, 2018

The Groundhog as Weather Prognosticator

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On February 2, many people in the U.S. will observe an annual rodent-based weather ritual, as the Pennsylvania groundhog Punxsutawney Phil is once again taken from his den to tell the world if there will be an early spring or six more weeks of winter. Students may wonder when the activities of a specific groundhog on February 2 became headline news, or if other animals predict the weather.

In Groundhog Day: Ancient Origins of a Modern Celebration, Stephen Winick traces Groundhog Day back to the Celtic celebration of Imbolc, which later became known by the Christian name of Candlemas. This celebration, in which people brought candles to church for blessings, also included a bit of “weather-lore.” The post quotes a 17th-century poem:

If Candlemas day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If on Candlemas day it be showre and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.

Early celebrations were tied to other animals, such as badgers, porcupines, and eventually groundhogs, that typically hibernated during the winter and emerged as spring grew closer.

In the late 1800s, people in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, began to celebrate February 2 and the powers of the groundhog. Though this event has become popular and other groundhogs around the country are also consulted about winter weather, not everyone feels that the groundhog is an effective prognosticator. In one 1931 newspaper article, the National Weather Bureau expresses its concern on basing the weather forecast on a groundhog.

Ask your students to predict whether there will be an early spring or six more weeks of winter this year. Encourage them to consider why they made these predictions. Do they think that the groundhog can determine the weather? How can they determine how often the groundhog is correct?

If you want to learn more about the groundhog and how he became a weather predictor, make sure to read Stephen Winick’s Groundhog Day blog post on Folklife Today. Also look at the Library’s Everyday Mysteries and the response to the question about the groundhog’s ability to foretell the weather.

In addition to exploring the predictions of the groundhog, students may be interested in learning more about other ways that people and animals have predicted the weather. Make a list of some of the things they may have heard from family and friends such as predicting rain because of specific aches and pains.

Here are a few other examples:

  • “Red sky in morning, sailors give warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.”
  • “You can tell the temperature by counting a cricket’s chirps.”
  • “If there is thunder in winter snow is coming.”

To learn more, explore the Library’s primary source set on weather forecasting or Everyday Mysteries on topics relating to meteorology and climatology. Students may also be interested in the blog post on how people in the military predicted weather during wartime.

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