- Alan Freed/Reuters
- Punxsutawney Phil (pictured above) gets the spring forecast right about 30% of the time. That’s worse than flipping a coin.
- Real long-range forecasters with the National Weather Service say they’re getting better at predicting long-term trends, though. Their success rate is about 70%.
- This coming spring is looking warm for most of the country.
On Friday morning, Punxsutawney Phil popped out in Pennsylvania and delivered his annual prediction for when winter will end: after seeing his shadow, he proclaimed six more frigid weeks of cold. Meanwhile, in New York City, Staten Island Chuck declared an early spring is on the way.
Groundhogs, it turns out, aren’t great forecasters. Records show that Punxsutawney Phil actually performs worse than a coin toss when it comes to predicting the end of winter chill. The rodent’s guesses are only accurate about 30% of the time. (It’s probably not a shock that his shadow-checking technique doesn’t actually work.)
The bizarre tradition of asking groundhogs what they think about the arrival of spring weather is an imported idea from Germany, where they originally used European badgers for the task. In the US, groundhogs were subbed in.
The logic is not completely crazy. Skies are generally clearer when the air is dry and cold, so it could be that if a little woodchuck sees his shadow on the day halfway between winter solstice (the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere) and the spring equinox (when day and night are evenly split), that might mean the weather will continue to be cold.
But relying on a single moment’s conditions to predict an entire season is obviously silly.
Asking the real experts
Thankfully, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center has a much better forecasting record.
“I don’t know how the groundhog is monitoring his accuracy, but the way we’re doing it, we would ballpark we’re probably about 70% right,” NWS meteorologist Stephen Baxter told Business Insider.
Predicting seasonal climate, like Baxter does, has gotten easier over the past several years as the globe has recorded a string of record-hot temperatures. Because the Earth is consistently heating up as time goes on, it’s less difficult to guess what the temperature might be like in the future. Long-range forecasters base their predictions on a climactic reference period from 1981-2010, and recent temperature trends have been higher than that baseline every single year.
“For example, the North Slope of Alaska, every fall season there’s been warm for the past 15 years or something, relative to normal,” Baxter said. Based on that trend, things are probably going to continue warming up.
An increasing number of extreme weather events like wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts add to the complexity of the weather models. But Baxter said “climate modeling is getting better, but rather gradually” as greenhouse gases trap more of the sun’s heat.
A warm spring’s likely in store
Baxter said the next few months are no exception to the years-long warming trend in the Northern Hemisphere.
This spring is expected to be warmer-than-average across much of the Southern US, particularly in the Southwest and along the East Coast.
But not everyone is in for a balmy spring. Winter might last longer in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Plains states, as well as in the Rocky Mountains, as some lingering snowy and rainy effects of the La Niña winter weather pattern stick around.
“They might have colder outbreaks later into the season,” Baxter said.
That’s still just a prediction, but it’s definitely more trustworthy than anything Phil might tell us.