National Geographic Daily News
A photo of a groundhog on Groundhog Day.

Punxsutawney Phil climbs on the shoulder of groundhog handler John Griffiths at last year's Groundhog Day Celebration.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX WONG, GETTY

Ker Than

for National Geographic

PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 1, 2014

Groundhog Day is upon us again, and this year the celebration is happening during a bitter cold snap and on the same day as the Super Bowl. How will these two factors affect the festivities surrounding the prognostication of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog resident of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania?

According to legend, the rodent can predict whether spring will arrive early depending on whether he sees his shadow and returns to his home.

Neither the polar vortex nor the football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos are expected to put a dent in the town's activities this weekend, said Zak Lantz, editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper.

Forecasters predict that this Sunday will actually be one of the warmer Groundhog Days in a while, he added. With the recent prolonged cold weather, "I'm sure a lot of folks here are hoping for the early spring," Lantz said.

Now in its 128th year, the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney has been growing in popularity, and is even attracting an overseas crowd.

"I've met people here from Russia, Germany, and the U.K.," said Tom Chapin, a former editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit, in a 2012 interview. "People 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." (See "Groundhog Day Pictures: Punxsutawney Phil, Now and Then.")

Rock Concert With a Groundhog

Chapin, who has covered Groundhog Day for the town newspaper for more than a decade, likened the event to a rock concert except that "the people are better behaved and there's a groundhog involved."

He told National Geographic news in an interview in 2011, "There's music and entertainment, spoofs of game shows, and people shooting T-shirts and Beanie Babies into the crowd."

Legend has it that the Romans also believed that weather conditions in early February were a good predictor of future weather, but the empire looked to hedgehogs for its forecasts.

German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania brought the tradition with them. But lacking hedgehogs, the settlers substituted native groundhogs in the ritual and Groundhog Day was born.

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 in New York and General Beauregard Lee in Georgia maintain regional fame. (See "Groundhogs Disagree on Winter Prognosis" [2009].)

According to Punxsutawney folklore, Phil owes his long life span to an "elixir of life" served every summer at the annual Groundhog Picnic, of which there are curiously no photographs.

Despite the claims of the Inner Circle—Punxsutawney Phil's human handlers—such longevity would make the famous groundhog a statistical anomaly, to say the least.

Groundhogs in captivity typically live no longer than about ten years, which suggests that 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.

(Find out why Punxsutawney Phil and other hibernating animals may suffer dangerous wakeup calls due to global warming.)

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 Marmota genus. Native to most of Canada and the eastern U.S., groundhogs gorge themselves all summer, then hibernate—with significantly lower heart rates and body temperatures—between fall's first frost and the start of spring. 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 2014 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 its conclusion by taking Phil's predictions and comparing them with average temperatures in February and March. In many years when Phil has 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 an unabashed Punxsutawney Phil fan—journalistic objectivity be damned—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."

Follow Ker Than on Twitter.

7 comments
Richard Fusco
Richard Fusco

I preferred to see the great Super Bowl and Seattle rule the field!!

Richard Fusco
Richard Fusco

Nice article ... I followed Seattle's Victory

Richard G.
Richard G.

While I believe in the ethical treatment of animals, I'd rather see an electronic PETA representative. At least then we could turn it off.

David Mahon
David Mahon

I would imagine he might skip today, it being so cold out. It is a great way to get people outdoors and enjoy themselves.

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