Happy Groundhog Day!

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Today, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a groundhog will emerge from hibernation. Hundreds of people will watch as he looks outside, for if he sees his own shadow, it means we’re in for another 40 days of winter.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Serbia, a bear will also inspect the weather. If it’s sunny, he’ll sleep for another six weeks.

Elsewhere, in Portugal, Italy and the UK, old rhymes tell the same story – if the weather today is nice, then winter is sticking around.

We live in a scientific age. We’ve got satellites and meteorologists, we don’t need to hang around, waiting to see whether or not a groundhog gets freaked out by his own shadow. And yet the custom and its related folk wisdom are pretty widespread. Why is that?

Because there’s some truth in it. According to Wikipedia (I know, but I can’t find more scientific groundhog-related statistics right now, and besides, the whole point of this stuff is that it’s anecdotal), the custom correctly predicts the weather around 38% of the time, which actually isn’t that bad a hit rate for a rodent.

The theory goes that, if the groundhog can see his shadow then it’s probably a clear day and therefore probably colder; a mild day means more clouds and therefore spring is drawing closer. And yes, there are plenty of other variables but it’s not a bad rule of thumb.

A similar tradition exists in the UK around St. Swithin’s Day – if it rains on 15 July then there’ll be rain for the next 40 days as well. The rationale behind this is that the jet stream settles into a steady pattern around mid-July, and can therefore give a good indication for what the weather will be like for the next few weeks.

Sure, none of this is particularly scientific; it doesn’t matter. All this weather lore points to something else – Back in the day, being able to read nature was an important survival skill; now most of us are isolated from the natural world, armed with fridges and thermostats and streetlights. Of course we like the idea that a groundhog can predict the coming of spring; it brings us together with our communities and their traditions and forgotten knowledge.

And so I’m looking out my window and guessing it’ll be a longer winter. And I may well be wrong, but making the effort feels right as I look at the sunshine and feel the cold.

 

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