For those desperate for warmer weather and a steady dose of vitamin D, Groundhog Day – often referred to as North America’s strangest holiday – can serve as a beacon of hope for the winter weary.
This year, two of Canada’s most beloved weather-predicting groundhogs are calling for an early spring. Ontario’s Wiarton Willie and Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam both emerged from their winter hideaways with no shadows in sight – which, by their handler’s definition, means spring is on the way.
But are any of these marmots to be believed?
Where did we get the idea groundhogs can predict the weather, anyway?
The belief behind Groundhog Day stems from an ancient Christian celebration known as “Candlemas Day,” which marks the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.
Before groundhogs, a member of the clergy would bless candles and hand them out to local villagers. Legend had it, people would be in for a longer winter if the day was sunny and clear, but, if the sky was cloudy, warm weather was on its way.
The Germans were responsible for incorporating animals – they used to bring along a hedgehog to see if it saw its shadow. Just like today’s folklore, if the animal sees its shadow when it emerges from its burrow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If the animal doesn’t see its shadow, then tradition says spring is on the way.
Is there any accuracy to these ‘predictions?’
Experts don’t seem to have much faith in our furry friends.
According to Dave Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, relying on a large rodent to predict weather patterns is just marginally better than flipping a coin.
“We just want to believe what we want to believe,” Phillips said. “It really just is ‘alternative facts.’“
Phillips estimates Wiarton Willie, Punxsutawney Phil and the likes are right about 30 per cent of the time.
“In the next six weeks will we have more spring or winter-like weather – or will it be something in between? Each has a third of a chance of being right,” he said.
WATCH: Shubenacadie Sam makes his 2017 prediction
Punxsutawney Phil – whose keepers swear is the only groundhog with true weather-predicting powers – has a reputation for being right about 46 per cent of the time. According to the Staten Island Zoo, resident weather expert Staten Island Chuck has an 80 per cent accuracy record.
It’s important to give credit where credit is due; Phillips did note that Environment Canada estimates Eastern Canada will see a trend of warmer weather over the next six weeks.
Yet, while we officially ring in the start of spring on March 20 this year, the climatologist pointed out that wintry weather has the tenancy to play with us here in Canada.
Is Wiarton Willy a fraud?
Phillips did, however, have some harsh words for Ontario’s own groundhog celebrity.
By his estimates, Wiarton Willy has an 80 per cent chance of seeing his shadow on Feb. 2, more than any other city in Canada. That’s because Wiarton, Ont., gets a lot of lake effect weather, thanks to its position on an inlet off Georgian Bay on the Bruce Peninsula, and cloud cover.
“It’s in the Snow Belt – if it’s not snowing it’s about to snow,” Phillips said. “It’s very biased.”