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The shadows of weather watching

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Do we really trust a rodent to predict our weather?

As Kendall County and the Hill Country experienced what many hope will be the final blast of “winter” this week, Punxsutawney Phil, undoubtedly the world’s most famous weather forecaster, did something he does not do very often.

As light snow fell in western Pennsylvania early this past Sunday, the groundhog revealed that warmer days apparently are ahead.

In other words, he did not see his shadow and thus said an early spring is on the horizon.

At sunrise on Feb. 2, known throughout the land as Groundhog Day, members of Phil’s top hat-wearing inner circle revealed the rodent declared “Spring will be early. It’s a certainty.”

In the last 100 or so years, the Punx has called for an early spring only 21 times. And, in the 134 years the groundhog has been a weather forecaster, he has called for more winter more than 100 times.

However, there’s really no reason to cheer. According to the experts, Phil has been correct only about 39 percent of the time.

So, maybe he really is a true weather forecaster.

However, legend states the discrepancy in poor forecasting is apparently because Phil’s annual message gets lost in translation.

The annual Groundhog Day event has its origin in a German legend that says if a furry rodent casts a shadow on Feb. 2, winter continues. If not, spring comes early. So, every year, Phil methodically yet anxiously comes out of his den at Gobbler’s Knob, a tiny hill just outside of Punxsutawney, and does his business.

But, just how far does Phil’s forecast reach?

While Phil thinks warmer days are ahead, forecasters at AccuWeather are predicting “seasonable winter weather” in most places across the country over the next six weeks.

However, according to the local National Weather Service office, the Boerne area has about a 47 percent chance of having above-normal temperatures through April and a 32 percent chance of having near normal temperatures. For you math majors, that’s about an 80 percent probability of Jack Frost not appearing much, if at all, until the waning weeks of 2020 some nine months away.

Of course, all this really matters not deep in the heart of Texas because we don’t experience winter around here. Yeah, it got a little chilly this week. But our average temperature throughout the month of January was a comfortable 54.5 degrees, according to the NWS. We had six days of 70-plus-degree highs and another 17 of at least 60 degrees.

And these numbers are from what traditionally is the coldest month of the year.

It’s already been unseasonably warm here this year. If it gets any warmer, it will be hot.

And it’s only February …

So, I’ll ask again. Do we really trust a rodent to predict our weather?

A groundhog also is known as a woodchuck … as in how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

The critter is described as a rodent of the family Sciuridae, belonging to the large group of ground squirrels known as marmots. They’re most common in the north but they do migrate south as far as about Dallas.

I saw them quite often when I lived and worked in the Midwest. I’ve never seen one look for its shadow, however.

Specifically, I also have met Punxsutawney Phil in person while on a summer vacation to his part of the country more than a decade ago. In trying to make conversation, he and I chatted about the weather and other such things. He likes to talk.

While we visited, he looked around quite a bit and moved his whiskers as if trying to make a point or two. I did not, however, see him looking for his shadow.

True story.

But, really, what’s the point?

As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see.”

Apparently, that’s the great debate. One mere shadow on one morning in one specific location from one specific rodent once a year determines the next six weeks of weather?


Just what should we believe?

Of course, if we follow a certain character first made famous in the 1930s through the voice of none other than Orson Welles, we would know the answer to that question once and for all.

After all, The Shadow knows!

Happy early spring.

And, as always, thanks for reading.