Warm Winter Could Take Pressure Off Pa. Groundhog

Published February 2, 2012 7:27AM (EST)

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (AP) — With this winter being like it's been, six more weeks of it might not be so bad.

Unseasonably warm temperatures and a lack of snow would seem to put less pressure on Punxsutawney Phil, the central Pennsylvania groundhog set to make his annual weather forecast on Thursday morning.

Organizers said 15,000 to 18,000 people are expected to witness the furry creature's prognostication just before 7:30 a.m. EST on Gobbler's Knob at Punxsutawney.

The Groundhog Day celebration is rooted in a German superstition that says if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on Feb. 2, the Christian holiday of Candlemas, winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend says, spring will come early.

The celebration turnout will likely be helped by weather expected to be partly sunny and nearly 14 degrees above normal. The average early-morning temperature usually hovers around 17 degrees, but on Thursday morning it is expected to be closer to 31 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett will be among the spectators this year. Those who can't make it to Gobbler's Knob, which sits about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, can follow the groundhog on Twitter and Facebook, or watch a webcast of the event on his website.

Phil has seen his shadow 99 times and hasn't seen it just 16 times since 1886, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, which runs the event. There are no records for the remaining years.

Generally speaking, unseasonably warm temperatures can make groundhogs and other wildlife more active in winter, said Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser, noting that it's easier to find food when there aren't several layers of snow and ice on the ground.

"Hibernation is a way of getting away from it all in a harsh winter," Feaser said. "But if you have a mild winter ... they don't necessarily need to worry about it as much."

But in reality, Punxsutawney Phil doesn't see much of anything. The prediction is decided in advance by about 15 members of the Inner Circle, who don tuxedos and top hats for the event.

The tradition attained a large following with the 1993 Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day," in which a weatherman covering the event must relive the day over and over again. Before the movie came out, Phil was lucky to have an audience of 2,500, said Mike Johnston, vice president of the Inner Circle.

And while the group has records of Phil's predictions dating back to 1886, what it doesn't have is a tally of whether Phil was right.

Johnston said the reason is simple: "He's never been wrong." Phil is "incapable of error," he said, because the groundhog smartly avoids being site-specific in his prognostications.

If Phil predicts six more weeks of winter, said Johnston, "I guarantee you someone's going to have six more weeks of winter."





By Salon Staff

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