This year my two oldest children really got in to the whole Groundhog Day thing . . . so much so that when they heard on the Today Show that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, signaling 6 more weeks of winter the oldest insisted that there be a “redo,” because he was not going to endure 6 more weeks of winter.
“You guys,” I said. “Just relax. The groundhog can’t really predict the weather. It’s just something fun to do on February 2 every year. It’s just folklore.” (My son is currently learning about folk stories in 2nd grade, so I thought this might sell my explanation!)
“How do you know mom?” (that was my kindergartener, not convinced and not happy about the groundhog’s prediction). “Maybe he’s right and you’re just saying its folklore so we won’t be sad.”
I don’t really remember how the rest of the conversation went, mostly because there wasn’t any use in arguing with either of them and also because by then, they had completely lost interest in the conversation. But that kindergartener, she got me thinking. How often is the groundhog right? Does he predict the end of winter enough that there might actually be something to this whole “groundhog sees his shadow” thing?
U.S.A. Today wrote an article about the groundhog’s predictions and the National Weather Center also has a thing or two to say about how accurate the groundhog actually is; they report the groundhog has been wrong 15 times and right 10 times. But here’s the thing . . . according to both websites the groundhog either predicts 6 more weeks of winter or an “early spring.”
Who decides if spring has come early? How do we know if winter has lasted for 6 weeks? Is this measured by the air temperature? The amount of snow on the ground? The vernal equinox is the “official” start of spring, but clearly that’s not what people are talking about when they refer to the groundhog’s prediction . . . otherwise, no prediction would be needed!
I suggest we get a little more precise about what we mean by the groundhog’s prediction, before we decide whether his predictions are accurate or not. I propose that if the temperature for half or more than half of 6 weeks after February 2 (so that’s the week of 2/2, 2/9, 2/16, 2/23, 3/2, 3/9, 3/16) has an air temperature at or below the national average for the last 100 years that counts as 6 more weeks of winter; otherwise, spring. According to this definition of an “early spring” Phil has correctly predicted the weather for the next 6 weeks, 11 times over the course of the last 26 years.
If we recognize this as an example of binomial probably, we know that about 30% of the time we would have been able to be just as accurate as Phil by flipping a coin where “heads” is early spring and “tails” is 6 more weeks of winter. I’d say that qualifies as a folktale to me, wouldn’t you?