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The Science Behind The Weather: Groundhog Day

Guru or fraud? We investigated 5 groundhogs


Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, January 31, 2017, 11:52 AM - Once again, on February 2, all eyes will be on groundhogs across North America in the desperate hope of an early spring forecast - and in fear of another six weeks of frozen misery.

Hope is all very well and good ... but really, can we trust these would-be prognosticators? Aside from questionable accuracy, some of them have some shady backgrounds.

Here's a look at five of them.

Punxsutawney Phil

You know you've made it when you've been on Oprah, met Ronald Reagan and co-starred with Bill Murray.

Phil is by far the most famous groundhog, with people hanging onto every wiggle of his little groundhog nose, like 2014, when he predicted an extra six weeks of winter:

No reasonable person could say he got that one wrong, but that's pretty much the exception to the rule.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the federal U.S. weather guys), in a century-plus of forecasts, Phil predicted six more weeks of winter 101 times, an early spring 17 times (there's also nine years of missing data. Smells like a cover-up). And according to the number-crunchers at StormFax.com, he's usually only accurate 39 per cent of the time. After 1969, the rate drops to 36 per cent (according to Live Science).

That's an astonishingly bad record, but the furry fraud has escaped accountability for his grievous errors time and time again ... until he bungled the 2013 forecast:

Contrary to his wobbly weather skills, there was NOT an early spring that year. Most people would just comfort themselves by looking up recipes for fricasee'd groundhog. Not Butler County, Ohio. Their county prosecutor demanded justice by suing Phil - and recommending a sentence of death.

We, uh, think that's a bit much (then again, we've never had to live through an Ohio winter), but Phil managed to beat the rap. His handler took the fall, claiming Phil had indeed predicted six more weeks of winter, but had been misinterpreted due to the handler's rusty groundhog-ese.

It was enough to melt the prosecutor's heart. Not ours, though. Next time, rodent. Next time.

General Beauregard Lee

This Atlanta-area groundhog is considerably less well known than Phil, and he's not happy about that.

It's at the point where the good general, who famously lives in a mini-mansion where he claims to be in touch with the elements, regularly calls out Phil out on his inaccuracy.

First off, he claims to be more qualified, proudly possessing the impressive and totally legit-sounding titles of Doctor of Weather Prognostication from the University of Georgia and Doctor of Southern Groundology from Georgia State University, according to the Yellow River Game Ranch. Then he straight up claims a 90-some per cent accuracy rating.

Some meteorological trash-talking is par for the course, but political fact-checking website PolitiFact actually decided to weigh in on this feud between the proud southerner and that yankee punk.

No, really, they totally did this. They looked at data from 2001 to 2010, and found Phil accurately predicted an early start to the nation's spring 30 per cent of the time. The general managed 60 per cent.

Beauregard Lee also got Atlanta's weather right 50 per cent of the time, while Phil did the same for Punxsutawney only 40 per cent.

Well, the stats are the stats, but the Beau's record is still lousy, and he's not immune from getting it badly, badly wrong - like in 1993, when he predicted an early spring, and March brought one of the most powerful winter storms in U.S. history.

Staten Island Chuck

This New York-based seasonal oracle actually has a decent-ish track record, according to his handlers at the Staten Island Zoo.

They reckon 26 out of his past 32 predictions panned out (about an 81 per cent hit rate), but his street cred is sharply diminished by the fact he assaulted a New York mayor - and may have been whacked by another one.

The out-of-control Chuck had a rocky relationship with former mayor Michael Bloomberg, to the point of biting his hand hard enough to puncture the glove:

That was back in 2009, and their working rapport didn't improve much, by reports. 

Still, it's miles ahead of what happened when the current incumbent, Bill de Blasio, met the critter (note the super-thick industrial-grade gloves):

Yep. The mayor of the U.S.' largest city totally dropped the groundhog - which was found dead a week later from internal injuries.

Then it got weirder. 

Not only did the zoo claim the injuries were more recent than de Blasio's bungle, it wasn't even Chuck. He was replaced on Groundhog Day by a stand-in, Charlotte, apparently out of fear Chuck would renew his mayor-mangling ways with the new guy.

Alleged accuracy aside, we feel Chuck loses points for bad behaviour and shady deceptions.

Wiarton Willie:

Speaking of groundhog-related scandal, look no further than Ontario's very own Bruce Peninsula, home to Wiarton Willie.

All eyes will be on this mild-mannered fella when he emerges on Groundhog Day. We had trouble tracking down his actual track record (we, uh, weren't confident of getting a reasonable figure from his handlers) but the Canadian Encyclopedia says groundhogs in Canada have more-or-less a 37 per cent accuracy rate.

So really, Willie's no more fraudulent than his American counterparts. That's not why he made this list. 

No, he earned his spot due to that one time he died and his handlers botched the funeral.

The current Willie's ancestor was found dead in his burrow just before Groundhog Day 1999, at the reported age of 22 years old. Distraught, his handlers arranged a funeral for him, which the CBC assures us included the face-up Willie with pennies over his eyes and clutching a carrot.

Charming. Touching. Lies. All lies.

Turns out that Willie was a fake. The real Willie was found too badly decomposed for public display, so they used a taxidermified stand-in instead.

We will grant that the betrayal was neither Willie's fault, nor that of his successor, but the apparent infrastructure of deception that surrounds our country's most famous weather-hog doesn't instill us with confidence.

Shubenacadie Sam

We did the digging on this guy. Really, we did. 

But aside from the penchant for occasionally sassing Nova Scotia media on Twitter, he actually seems like a stand-up rodent.

In fact, if you're serious about getting your fake-forecast fix as quick as you can, you actually can't do better than Sam.

His home province of Nova Scotia sits in the Atlantic Time zone, one hour ahead of Eastern Time, and with few (if any) high-profile hogs in Newfoundland (whose time zone is famously half an hour removed), Sam always gets the first crack at bolstering or dashing the hopes of a winter-weary nation.

Alas, that nifty perk is not enough to take away the shame he shares with most groundhogs: He's just not all that good at predicting the weather, although he is better than the Canadian average.

We'll turn to the Canadian Encyclopedia, which doesn't have objective stats for Shubenacadie, but does keep them for Halifax. And in Halifax, it seems, groundhogs have a 50 per cent chance of seeing their shadows, but only a 42 per cent accuracy rate.

Groundhog day is Wednesday, February 2. We'll see what the furry cabal has to say this time.

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