Friday, March 02, 2012

Poking my head out

Six more weeks or right around the corner? Even after Groundhog Day I really don’t have any idea. And I’m still not sure why we pay attention every Feb. 2 to this bit of silliness. Sure it gives us an excuse to watch the classic movie with Bill Murray as a weatherman stuck in serious rut in time, but why do we look to the animal known alternately as the whistle-pig or the land-beaver to clue us in to meteorological matters?

Yesterday, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, forecasting six more weeks of winter. At the same time, from the weather-forecasting capital of Ohio (Marion, in case you were wondering), comes Phil: The Sequel, better known as Buckeye Chuck. Ohio’s entry into rodent prognostication has been active since the 1970’s and was deemed official for the state since 1979. And at the crack of dawn yesterday, Chuck, apparently still rubbing sleep from his eyes, saw no shadow. So Chuck the woodchuck declared winter to be just around the corner. Who’s right? Will we need a no-holds-barred cage match to decide when spring is to arrive? Well, of course not. Spring will show up when it’s good and ready just like always. The calendar says March 20, but we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we?

Phil was first asked to predict the onset of spring in 1887 and has been doing it ever since. (We must all pretend that the life expectancy of this certain groundhog is somewhere around infinity.) The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club takes care of the varmint throughout the year and hauls him out each February for the annual event. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the routine. But in checking the statistics, yesterday’s shadow sighting was pretty predictable. Of all the years (1887-2010) with records kept, the rodent called Phil has seen a shadow 99 times and did not see his shadow 15 times. I guess it’s a safer bet to predict more winter at the beginning of February than to go out on a limb (or whatever it is groundhogs would go out on) and predict an early spring. With that in mind, Punxsutawney Phil’s accuracy record should be pretty impressive, right?

Uh, not so much.

One study proved that Phil’s forecasting was correct a grand total of 39 percent of the time. If you narrow the predictions to more recent years, 1969-2010, the accuracy of the famed whistle-pig drops to 36 percent. And when you consider that Phil has only two choices -- spring showing up Feb. 2 or March 15 -- he’s really not doing well. Flipping a coin should get you a 50 percent rate. Now before you complain about the accuracy of human beings predicting the weather, let me tell you that one person from the National Weather Service who let himself be quoted for some odd reason admitted that if the NWS has it right 60 percent of the time they consider that good. I realize that most people would love a job where you can be wrong 4 out of 10 times and still be employed, but then again most people wouldn’t like a job where they have to predict the future.

I find it interesting that for both Phil and Chuck, the handlers check for a shadow right at sunrise. If I was ever up at sunrise, I doubt I'd have enough energy to cast a shadow, let alone see one! But at least they don't have to adjust for Daylight Savings Time or leap seconds or anything else.

So instead of awaiting the grudge match between Buckeye “Give me spring!” Chuck and Punxsutawney “Make more cocoa!” Phil, I will patiently await the arrival of 70 degrees during this faux winter we've been having. I figure the tough part of winter will be right after that.

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