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Digging into Groundhog Day

UND experts in meteorology, wildlife biology and folklore weigh in on the science and tradition behind America’s most beloved weather holiday

It’s Groundhog Day! For the record, Punxsutawney Phil, this morning, saw his shadow and hustled back into his hole, signifying six more weeks of winter. How accurate are these furry forecasters? UND experts weigh in.

Depending on how your brain is wired, the words “Groundhog Day” will elicit one of two things upon their utterance—the anticipation of spring, or Bill Murray.

It can be hard for Fred Remer to separate the two.

“I’ve seen the movie many times. I’ve seen it over and over and over…” the UND associate professor of atmospheric sciences said with a laugh. “The way Bill Murray did TV weather—I loved that. I thought it was great.”

Remer spent some time as a local broadcast meteorologist before coming to UND for a faculty post, so he holds a special connection to the 1993 film, as well as the holiday that is its namesake. In fact, he met the famous Punxsutawney Phil during a quick stop in the Pennsylvania tourist town, and he learned a lot about the nation’s most famous furry forecaster.

“He’s got a wife, he’s married. So, I was talking with my wife and I quipped, you know, that’s why Phil is never right—because he’s married. You’re never right when you’re married,” Remer joked.

Whistle pigs?

The legend goes that on Feb. 2, the groundhog will emerge from its hole-in-the-ground home. If it sees its shadow, it will retreat back into its burrow for six more weeks of winter. If there’s no shadow, spring will arrive early.

Remer says Feb. 2 was likely chosen because it’s the midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, but UND Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology Jason Boulanger says the timing just doesn’t line up.

“In reality, the groundhogs come out of hibernation anytime in March or April on average,” Boulanger said. “Soon after that, mating begins, so when things warm up, that’s one of the first things they do when they come out of hibernation.”

Boulanger co-teaches UND’s Biology 426—Birds and Mammals—so he’s a bit of an expert when it comes to groundhogs, which are also referred to as woodchucks or whistle pigs.

“It comes from their vocalizations, because they whistle,” Boulanger explained. “That’s personally my favorite name.”

Jay Boulanger
UND biologist and all-around expert on big rodents Jay Boulanger says Groundhog Day is more about bringing some attention to an otherwise largely ignored animal than anything else. Photo courtesy of Jay Boulanger.

Horrible record

So, if the date of the holiday doesn’t align with the groundhog’s internal alarm clock, could there be any biological truth to the annual assessment of spring?

“To my knowledge, there is no peer-reviewed, scientific evidence that Groundhog Day is a ‘thing’,” Boulanger said. “If anything, it’s an outlet to bring some attention to maybe an otherwise ignored large rodent.”

Fred Remer
Fred Remer

“The groundhog is wrong. Online, it says 40 percent of the time the groundhog is wrong,” Remer adds. “Meteorologists are given a skill level based on how well they’re forecasting. The Weather Service tracks their forecasters and what their skill level is based on how much better they do than climatology. And the groundhog is doing worse than climatology.”

For the record, Punxsutawney Phil, this morning, saw his shadow and hustled back into his hole, signifying six more weeks of winter.

Maintaining myths

OK, OK. If there is no meteorological or biological truth behind Groundhog Day, there must be a reason we celebrate it. Instructor Merie Kirby leads courses in fairytales and folklore in the UND Honors Program. Surely she would have some insight into why Americans won’t give up on the tradition.

“It’s one of those customs that came over from Europe with immigrants,” Kirby said. “It’s kind of a connection to an agrarian past, where the change of the seasons really mattered to the health of a community. You couldn’t just go to the grocery store and get your cantaloupe in February. You had to wait. So if you stop to think about it, you can see that connection to the seasons. That has to do a lot with why we hold on to it.”

And keeping a tight grip on traditional folklore has its benefits. Shared stories bring communities together—even during the time of the year when the wind hurts our faces.

“In some ways it’s probably healthy as a coping mechanism,” Kirby said. “But for Grand Forks, it’s always going to be six more weeks of winter. They could haul that groundhog out in March and it would still be six more weeks of winter.”

For those who are looking for a more scientific forecast for our region, Remer says the Climate Prediction Center’s charts and models show below average temperatures and above average precipitation in the next couple of months, but an otherwise standard weather pattern for spring.

But charts and models, like groundhogs, can’t always be counted on.

“I mean, I’ve got the magic 8-ball. That helps sometimes,” Remer smiled.