In the afterglow of early morning fireworks on Groundhog Day 2012, the Inner Circle of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—human handlers of the world's most famous groundhog—took the stage at rural Gobbler's Knob to introduce what Vice President Mike Johnston called "the Great Oz of weather forecasting." (See Groundhog Day pictures.)
"Using a chirp and a click and a wink of an eye," Johnston said, Punxsutawney Phil had just signaled to the Inner Circle that he'd seen his shadow—meaning, according to legend, six more weeks of winter.
Now in its 126th year, the annual Groundhog Day event is still going strong and even attracting a growing overseas crowd.
"I've met people here from Russia, Germany, and the U.K.," said Tom Chapin, editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper. "People can't believe we do this every year. They can't believe we stand out in the cold and wait for a marmot to emerge from a stump. Some of this stuff you can't make up."
The famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will make his much anticipated prognostication this Thursday on Groundhog Day 2012. According to legend, the rodent will predict whether spring will arrive early this year. (Watch a groundhog video.)
"The event actually goes from February 1st to the 4th," said Groundhog Day event coordinator Katie Donald.
On years when Groundhog Day falls on a weekday, such as this year, about 10 to 15 thousand tourists attend the event, Donald said.
Many tourists are already trickling into town and many will stay for the weekend. When the event falls on a weekend, the crowd can easily be twice as big.
Groundhog Day 2012 on Bucket Lists?
The Punxsutawney Spirit's Chapin said he often hears many people say that Groundhog Day is one of the items on their bucket list.
"They say, I'm going to go Groundhog Day or skydiving, but maybe I'll hit Groundhog Day first, because that's a little less dangerous," he said.
Chapin said he has no idea what Phil's prognostication this year will be, but he hopes it will be for an early spring. The weather in town lately has certainly been promising.
"It's really nice right now," Chapin said. "Today as I left the house, there were people playing golf. My cat is outside, and I'm going to leave her there for a few hours because it won't be this great again until April."
Rock Concert With a Groundhog
Chapin, who has covered Groundhog Day at the town newspaper for 11 years, likened the event to a rock concert, with the difference being that "the people are better behaved and there's a groundhog involved."
"There's music and entertainment, spoofs of game shows, and people shooting T-shirts and Beanie Babies" into the crowd," Chapin told National Geographic News last Groundhog Day eve.
Legend has it that the Romans also believed that conditions during the first days of February were good predictors of future weather, but the empire looked to hedgehogs for their forecasts.
These two traditions melded in Germany and were brought over to the United States by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Lacking hedgehogs, the German settlers substituted native groundhogs in the ritual, and Groundhog Day was born.
(Download a National Geographic groundhog picture as wallpaper.)
Punxsutawney Phil. Will. Not. Die.
In 1887 a group of groundhog hunters from Punxsutawney (map) dubbed themselves the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and declared their furry oracle, Punxsutawney Phil, the one and only "official" weather-prognosticating groundhog. The Punxsutawney ceremony originated around the same time.
More than a hundred years later, Punxsutawney Phil remains the star of Groundhog Day, though rivals such as Staten Island Chuck and Gen. Beauregard Lee maintain regional fame. (See "Groundhogs Disagree on Winter Prognosis" .)
According to Punxsutawney folklore, Phil owes his long lifespan to an "elixir of life," served every summer at the annual Groundhog Picnic, of which there are curiously no photographs.
Despite the Inner Circle's claims, such longevity would make Punxsutawney Phil a statistical anomaly, to say the least—groundhogs in captivity typically live no longer than about ten years, which suggests Phil's name, passed down like "Lassie," may be the only immortal thing about him. Then again, the current Phil, weighing in at 20 pounds (9 kilograms) versus the usual 13 (6 kilograms), is anything but ordinary.
When he's not predicting the weather, Punxsutawney Phil makes his home at the Groundhog Zoo, an annex of the town library.
Also known as woodchucks, groundhogs are rodents of the marmot genus. Native to most of Canada and the eastern U.S., groundhogs gorge themselves all summer, then hibernate between fall's first frost and the start of spring—with significantly lower heart rates and body temperatures. Seen mainly around fields, streams, and roads, these squirrel cousins feast mainly on grasses and other plants, as well as fruit and tree bark.
Groundhog Day 2012 Predictions: Flipping a Coin More Accurate?
While Phil's proponents maintain that his predictions are 100 percent accurate, the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) has estimated that Phil is correct only about 40 percent of the time.
The NCDC reached their conclusion by taking Phil's predictions and comparing them with average temperatures in February and March. In many years when Phil's predicted six more weeks of winter weather, February and March have turned out to be warmer than average.
But to obsess over the accuracy of Phil's predictions is to miss the point, Chapin said. "It's more about having fun."
Groundhog Day Robot to Replace Punxsutawney Phil?
Not everyone finds the annual event entertaining, though.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in 2010 sent a letter to the president of the Inner Circle suggesting they retire Phil to a sanctuary and replace him with an electronic groundhog.
"Other popular exhibitions have featured robotic penguins and dolphins who swim and communicate just like real animals do," the letter says, "and we think that an animatronic groundhog would similarly mesmerize a crowd full of curious spectators in Punxsutawney."
Chapin, the Punxsutawney Spirit editor and—journalistic objectivity be damned—an unabashed Punxsutawney Phil fan, dismissed PETA's letter as a publicity stunt.
"The thing about PETA is they only get worried about Punxsutawney Phil once a year," Chapin said.
"The other 364 days of the year they don't say anything," he said. "It's an interesting idea, but I don't suspect Phil will be retiring anytime soon."