Groundhogs Sam, Willie and Phil say spring is near
Angela Mulholland, CTV.ca News Staff
Published Friday, February 2, 2007 11:20PM EST
Winter is on its last legs, according to Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam, the first of Canada's weather-predicting groundhogs to poke his nose out and make his forecast Friday.
The confused-looking rodent emerged from his enclosure near Halifax, took a good look around, and did not see his shadow.
Shortly afterwards, Pennsylvania's prognosticator of prognosticators, Punxsutawney Phil, followed suit with the same positive prediction. Then Ontario's Wiarton Willie, Canada's most famous albino rodent, also failed to see his shadow when roused from his sleep.
According to Groundhog Day folklore, if the rodent does not glimpse its shadow on Feb. 2 then spring is not far away. If he sees his shadow, six more weeks of winter can be expected.
Across Canada and the U.S. there are dozens of semi-famous woodchucks who are called on annually to make mid-winter predictions. Besides Shubenacadie and Wiarton's furry critters, Winnipeg, Man., and Balzac, Alta. each hosts a groundhog with legendary powers to foresee the future -- or at least, the future of the weather for the next six weeks.
Willie is likely Canada's most famous groundhog, having discovered his powers to predict when spring will begin back in 1954. But he's not the only one with "the gift." There's also Shubenacadie Sam, Balzac Billy in Alberta, and Manitoba Merv, north of Winnipeg.
And of course, there's Punxsutawney Phil, North America's original, who has been looking for his shadow since 1886. Phil is not only the original forecasting groundhog, he is, by his own admission, the best, boasting a 100 per cent accuracy rate.
After all, he'll tell you, his prediction is not fixed on any particular location, so it's got to be winter somewhere.
Shubenacadie Sam, a true Canadian, is a little more modest. His accuracy rate is only about 99 per cent. But he's thorough and precise, having devised -- with the help of his trainers at Shubenacadie Wildlife Park -- an ironclad formula, reports the park's Sue Penny.
"The formula involves the standard deviation of the sun's distance, multiplied by the latitude of Nova Scotia, which is 45 degrees north, divided by his age -- which of course is ageless, because he's an ageless seer," she deftly explains, "And with that we've got a 99 per cent accuracy rate."
Who can argue with that?
With the whole country watching Canada 's psychic groundhogs, the pressure on the little critters is enormous. And that is why they live such a posh lifestyle. Wiarton Willie, for example, lives in the newly renovated, stone-covered, "Chateau Willie," built by the local Rotary Club.
Shubenacadie Sam also has cozy digs and gets lots of his favourite foods, broccoli and carrots, which help with his vision. Into the future, of course.
Sam is given lots of hugs to acclimate him to people, so when his big moment arrives every Feb. 2, he won't squirm in the arms of Groundhog Day dignitaries. Or piddle on their arm, as Wiarton Willie did last year, to the embarrassment of his handlers.
No, Sam is really a people person -- er, people rodent -- who likes nothing more than a good scratch behind the ears. Ahead of his annual debut, Sam's days as are jam-packed, Penny says.
"He eats. And he sleeps," she relates. "Oh, and sometimes he grooms himself. In between the eating and sleeping."
It's a full schedule for the furry fellow who has the added responsibility of being the country's first groundhog to greet the sun every Feb 2. The pressure on him is enormous.
"But you know, I've never seen anyone handle pressure as well," says Penny. "And though the media attention grows every year, he handles it like a true ageless seer. He's there for the duty that calls him that day."
A true professional, indeed. Willie of Wiarton, could take a page.
Wiarton, you see, is home to Canada 's great groundhog scandal, "Willigate." In 1999, the 22-year-old albino Willie was found dead in his burrow only two days before Feb 2. A replacement couldn't be found on such short notice so organizers offered instead a funeral. The "Willie" in the coffin later turned out to be a stuffed groundhog, because the real Willie had died so long before, his decomposed remains couldn't be presented at the funeral. Many felt duped.
A new Willie stepped in for the last seven years, but wouldn't you know it, this past July, he died. Environment Canada 's Dave Philips is not surprised; it was probably the stress.
"Last year, Wiarton Willie didn't see his shadow, predicting that spring was on its way. And he was wrong! Last winter lasted forever. He's never gotten it so wrong!" the climatologist railed to CTV.ca.
"No wonder he died. It was probably stress and death threats."
Phillips concedes "there is a strand of truth" to the groundhog legend. Sunny days in winter are generally associated with colder, drier arctic air and cloudy days come with milder, moist air.
But he notes that Wiarton Willie's predictions seem to skew suspiciously toward an early spring every year. That may not be simply because Willie is an optimist. Phillips points out that Wiarton, located between two Great Lakes, see its fair share of moist air and therefore, cloud. Good reason then that Willie rarely sees his shadow.
"It's not his fault!" Phillips says. With eight of every 10 Feb. 2nds covered in cloud in Wiarton, it's no wonder Willie is often so wrong.
Phillips has put a lot of research into the matter, looking at weather data across the country over the past 20 years. He's discovered that places like Ottawa, Montreal or Calgary would be much better places for a groundhog to issue predictions in mid-winter. Those cities, he says, have about a 45 to 53 per cent chance of a sunny day every Feb. 2. The odds of success for a groundhog are more balanced.
Phillips believes the prediction legend is "pure groundhogwash."
"Come on, when these groundhogs come out of their burrow, they're looking for sex! They're not looking for their shadow," he says, perhaps just a little defensively.
This year, Phillips and his colleagues at Environment Canada have decided to scoop the country's groundhogs, using their own super-computers to come up a scientific forecast for the rest of the winter.
They say that from B.C. to Newfoundland, the entire month of February will bring colder than normal temperatures. And their longer 90-day forecast sees cold temperatures for 90 per cent of the country, with the exception of the high North.
"It just goes to prove, as I've said for years, that the front half of winter tells you nothing about what's coming for the rest of the season," he says.
Though Phillips believes his agency is best at predicting weather, he insists he has "no quarrel with the rodent," noting there's a place for a groundhog with a vision.
"We need this," he says. "We're Canadian; we're weather people."