NOAA Challenges Groundhog

Punxsutawney Phil is a little offended.

Or so says the scribe of the most famous brown, furry and burrowing meteorologist. This season scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided to put the groundhog to the test and checked his Groundhog Day predictions against actual NOAA records of spring's arrival.

The findings, according to Tom Ross of NOAA's Climate Monitoring Branch, show Phil the groundhog has "no predictive skill during the most recent years of this analysis."

Phil begs to differ.

"Those meteorologists are just jealous," says Bill Anderson, Phil's scribe and author of the book, Groundhog Day: 1886 to 1992. "They just don't get the same recognition that Phil does. Obviously, he's the weather king."

Watching at Cold Dawn

On Friday the town of Punxsutawney, Pa., will continue its early morning tradition and yank Phil from his heated imitation tree trunk at the crack of dawn. As the 114-year tradition dictates, if Phil sees his shadow, he'll regard it as an omen of six more weeks of cold to come and will return to his burrow. If the skies are cloudy and cast no shadow, he'll hang around, expecting an early spring.

It may be impossible to predict Phil's disposition Friday morning, but weather forecasts for Punxsutawney suggest there's a good chance he may linger outside his trunk. Cloudy skies and even snow are predicted for Friday in the small town, reducing the chance that anyone will see their shadows.

But Ross isn't convinced that seeing shadows is so significant anyway. He points out it's likely to be so unpleasant and cold at 7:25 a.m. in Punxsutawney, that Phil may decide to return to his burrow no matter what he sees.

"It can get quite cold on a February morning in Pennsylvania," Ross says.

And, Ross points out, looking for a shadow hasn't seemed to help the groundhog's record. After analyzing NOAA weather data since 1988, Ross found absolutely no correlation between Phil's predictions and the average temperatures of the next two months.

"There's just nothing there," he says.

Season of Transition

Regardless of Phil's accuracy, Groundhog Day, itself, does mark the start of a change in temperature. Groundhog Day began as a medieval German celebration marking the midway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.

Data records also show February and March exhibit transitional temperatures. According to National Climactic Data Center numbers, average high temperatures at the beginning of the February reach 47 degrees. By the beginning of March, average highs climb to 57 degrees and then 67 degrees by the end of the month.

Americans may have to wait until Friday morning for famous Phil's prediction, but, in the meantime, NOAA meteorologists have offered their own, perhaps more credible forecast. The Northwest should expect below normal temperatures; portions of Florida will see warmer and drier weather; the Southwest to Southeast and northward to the Great Lakes, Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic coast should expect normal to warm temperatures.

One thing Americans need not expect is long-lasting, unusual cold like the weather that gripped the nation throughout the months of November and December.

"This November and December were the coldest on record in the U.S.," says Ross.

Most groundhogs across the country have spent the cold winter months hibernating and are expected to emerge from their burrows over the next two weeks. Phil, on the other hand, has little time for sleep.

Two days before his big day, the groundhog (whom Anderson claims is at least 115 years old) was hustling around New York City, generating press.

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