The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    Mystery behind a fuzzy star

    Submitted Photo

    Every year on Feb. 2, the future of our weather forecasts lies in the eyes of a 10 to 20 pound rodent with a brain roughly the size of a thumb.

    These famed animals can be found in nearly every state across the nation, predicting the weather based on one peek out of their hibernation burrows. According to legend, if they see a shadow, then it’s six more weeks of winter, and they go back to hibernate. However, citizens await the off chance that they don’t see a shadow and stay above ground for an early spring.

    Even though modern science yields very little bearing in terms of groundhogs predicting weather, the tradition and fun of Groundhog Day has taken hold of communities nationwide, experts say.

    “People don’t come because it’s the best meteorological source known to man, but because it’s fun,” Punxsutawney Groundhog Club President Bill Cooper said.

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    The celebration spawned from the European holiday folklore of Candlemas Day, Cooper said. The mantra of Candlemas Day stated, “For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May.”

    From there, Cooper said, the earliest prognostication from Punxsutawney Phil – named after King Philip – came in the early 1800s. Not until 1887 did the citizens of Punxsutawney, Penn. make the trek out to Gobbler’s Knob for an official prediction.

    Just over 100 years later, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray teamed up to bring the celebration to the silver screen. According to Cooper, several of the crew for the film came to Punxsutawney to recreate the magic of early February.

    “The movie was fun and that’s what it’s all about,” said Cooper, the man charged with translating Groundhogese at Gobbler’s Knob.

    This year marks the historic 120th recorded prediction from Punxsutawney Phil, both a local and national celebrity. After appearing in Times Square on the JumboTron, the feature film, The Oprah Winfrey Show, the White House with President Reagan and even inspiring his own beanie baby, Phil is not only recognized in Pennsylvania but also nationwide. After all, he has managed to extend his lifespan from under 10 to over 100 years by drinking a magic punch, according to the Groundhog Club.

    “It really has grown into an establishment,” news reporter for The Punxsutawney Spirit Megan Riter said. Riter, who has lived in Punxsutawney her whole life, added that up to 30,000 people have shown up for the festival of Phil. Additionally, Riter said the vast drawing power of the holiday has provided loads of money to the small town of about 6,000.

    “It’s a very big economic boost for the town,” she said. “As much as three million dollars have been accumulated in a three-day period.”

    Groundhog Day has certainly drawn attention over the years as dozens of Phils have spawned in various states. In Sun Prairie, Jimmy the Groundhog draws many spectators every year for a local taste of weather magic.

    “There’s a lot of people that come,” junior and Sun Prairie native Kate Wiersema said. “Jimmy’s a little local celebrity.”
    Wiersema added that the school system in Sun Prairie excuses absences on Feb. 2 if they attend the prognostication.

    “Most people think it’s a little bit silly,” she said. “And a lot of people don’t even notice Groundhog Day, but I think it’s a cute idea.”

    So how much of this event is reliable and how much is just fun? Local meteorologist Nate Larscheid, of WEAU-TV 13 said he doesn’t think many people put weight into the tradition.

    “It’s a funny little tradition that people do. However, there’s no basis for validity in terms of meteorology,” he said.

    Assistant Professor Chris Floyd of the biology department said there’s some logic involved in believing the groundhogs. These marmots, a family of rodents in the squirrel family, normally go into hibernation around October or November and come out between February and March, according to Floyd. A process called spontaneous arousal wakes them up about once a month to check out their surroundings, he said. This arousal is a phenomenon that no one really understands.
    “If there is some biological reality (to Groundhog Day), it’s likely that it’s their physiological schedule,” said Floyd, who studied marmot mating and dispersal patterns in Colorado. “As far as the shadow though, I have no idea what that means.”

    In the once-a-month occurrence when a groundhog tests the surroundings, Floyd said if the conditions are right, they’ll stay above ground; if not, they’ll go back to sleep.

    So there might be some scientific validity to Groundhog Day, right? Not according to local meteorologists.

    “You can read lots of articles on how it scientifically holds bearings but I personally think it’s not true,” Larscheid said.

    Chief Meteorologist Bob Trihy, of WQOW-TV 18, agrees.

    “I don’t think much of it,” he said. “It’s obviously just a gimmicky thing.”

    In the 120 years that Phil has predicted weather, 95 times he has seen six more weeks of winter. So how does this measure up with the weather from those years?

    According to Cooper, that’s not the importance of Groundhog Day.

    “Who cares about his accuracy? Half of people want to keep skiing and the other half want it to be warm again,” he said. “It’s not the decision, it’s the event that’s important.”

    People don’t go to Punxsutawney or Sun Prairie for the science of groundhogs, Trihy said, they go to have fun.

    “It’s a people day designed and invented to socialize and break up the monotony of winter,” Cooper said.

    Despite the scientific lack of evidence for poor, exposed groundhogs across the nation, on Feb. 2 people from all over will travel to have some fun and hear how much more winter we can expect.

    For those that have been to Groundhog Day, Cooper said, “it’s likely to be a day you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”

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    Mystery behind a fuzzy star