While much of the United States continues to battle the effects of a major winter storm, it may be a slight comfort to know that there is at least one optimistic weather forecast for the coming months.
It comes from one of the country’s most famous weather forecasters: Punxsutawney Phil.
Now, Phil may lack a science degree or a recognised meteorological qualification, but then, he is a groundhog; a cute, slightly aggressive terrier-sized rodent.
Much is made of Phil’s supposed weather prognostications, based on whether, upon emerging from his cage in Pennsylvania, he is able to see his shadow. A shadow is supposed to indicate a return to six more weeks of winter; cloud cover, and no shadow, means that winter is at an end.
On Tuesday, Phil saw no shadow, pointing to winter being over.
Unfortunately, analysis of Phil’s predictions since 1988 shows that he has a 40 percent success rate, low enough to get any bona fide meteorologist the sack.
Yet the idea of long-range weather forecasting based on weather conditions on February 2 stretches back many centuries, for this is Candlemas Day.
Candlemas is a Christian religious festival commemorating the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after she gave birth to Jesus.
It also marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. There are many sayings attributed to this day, such as: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter will have another flight; If Candlemas brings cloud and rain, winter is gone and won’t come again.”
The implication is that if February 2 is a fine day then winter will return, but if it is a wet day, then winter will be at an end.
To wave goodbye to winter at the beginning of February seems foolhardy to say the least and there is no evidence to back it up.
Tradition has it that the early German settlers in Pennsylvania thought the groundhog to be a particularly sensitive and intelligent creature.
Back in their homeland they apparently credited the badger with similar qualities.
On the face of it, Punxsutawney Phil lives a celebrity lifestyle. Crowds of 30,000 flock to see his predictions and he has even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Yet fame can have its downside, too. In 2014, Phil’s counterpart in New York, Staten Island Chuck, fell from the arms of the city’s major, Bill de Blaiso, during the ceremony. Alas, poor Chuck is reported to have died of internal injuries a week later.
A loss to the science of weather forecasting it was not.