Groundhog Day — Celebrate it Weather Weenie Style!

Punxsutawney Phil making his appearance at Gobbler’s Knob in 1995. He had predicted six more weeks of winter on this day. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons via CC.

Want a geeky roadtrip? I’d argue there’s little geekier than trekking to one of the U.S. or Canadian communities that celebrate Groundhog Day on February 2nd.

For those unfamiliar, the legend of Groundhog Day dates back to European folklore, where farmers relied on the emergence of small ground animals (in addition to groundhogs, there are records of badgers and hedgehogs) to signal the end of the winter. In the United States, the first records of the groundhog legend dates back to the Pennsylvania “Dutch” in the 18th century and even today Groundhog Day is widely recognized among the Amish.

What’s the legend? It goes like this:

If, on February 2nd, the groundhog emerges at sunrise on a cloudy day, the groundhog will leave its home and winter is effectively over. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his shadow, become frightened and return to its home…and winter will be extended for another 6 weeks.

Wikipedia presents several charts outlining assorted groundhogs’ predictions throughout North America. It’ll tickle you to know that the National Climatic Data Center has assessed American groundhog predictions at 39%.

If you ask most Americans to name the first famous groundhog that pops in their heads, Punxsutawney Phil will be the answer.  Hailing from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Phil is revered like royalty.  There’s a society known as the Inner Circle in Punxsutawney that cares for Phil during the year and arranges the annual celebration in his honor.

Of course, the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, helped make Phil famous as well.

In 1995, during my senior year of college, several of us meteorology majors took a road trip to Punxsutawney.  Right on the heels of the movie, many of us had visions of how it’s portrayed in the film.  Sunny, a band playing, right in the center of town.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.  First of all, you have to arrive very early to get good viewing.  Remember, Phil comes out of his burrow at sunrise.  So we showed up around 3am.  Phil does not come out of his burrow in the center of town either.

Welcome to Gobbler’s Knob, the location 2 miles EAST of Punxsutawney where Phil actually makes his annual prognostication. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Gobbler’s Knob is an area about 2 miles east of town.  It’s well out of town.  Therefore, when it’s about 30 degrees F in town, you can expect about 15 degrees F in a valley where the spectators are convened, looking uphill towards a stage covered in floodlights.

We apparently weren’t the only college students who made the road trip.  The valley was packed with other college geeks (the only ones who’d make this venture, apparently) and it was a pretty wild — and COLD — 2 1/2 hour wait for the big event. Lots of flasks being passed around…

During the ceremony, the members of the Inner Circle take sides and hold up signs proclaiming their hypotheses for Phil. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Then it’s time for the big event. I have to admit, I felt badly for the little guy. Floodlights are turned on, Phil is yanked out of his makeshift tree-trunk shaped cage and held up WAY HIGH for everyone to see.

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If you look REAL close, this was my view of Phil coming out of the hole in 1995. See him there in the center of the picture? Photo: Patricia Vollmer

With the floodlights on, I don’t see how Phil couldn’t have seen his shadow. But it’s rumored that the “prognostication” has been predetermined by the Inner Circle…whether Phil sees his shadow or not.

I encourage you to take a trip to see a groundhog celebration near you!  The Wikipedia article points out several communities that celebrate, such as Raleigh, North Carolina (Sir Walter Wally), Aurora, Colorado (a marmot, actually), and Lilburn, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta).

Want to learn more about Groundhog Day?  It seems the town of Punxsutawney owns the domain name www.groundhog.com and through their site you can learn more about the holiday and about groundhogs in general.

Patricia Vollmer is the proud mother of two emerging geek sons, ages 12 & 15. She is a meteorologist with the Air Force Reserve and is currently assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Patricia blogs about her family's nomadic military life at Ground Control to Major Mom. Home is always where the Air Force sends her family, which is currently in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Hobbies include running, despite no one chasing her, sharing her love for Disney and Star Wars, and exploring the world with her boys. Ask her why the sky is blue at your own risk.