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Boston not springing to shady legend

Groundhog prognostications

The history of Punxsutawney Phil's Groundhog Day forecasts.

Ed Wiederer, James Abundis/Globe Staff
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 3, 2009
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It is sanctified as its own day, designated on desk calendars, memorialized by Congress and celebrated around the world. The problem is, Groundhog Day is a fraud.

Yesterday, Punxsutawney Phil came out to look for his shadow, and so did a knockoff groundhog known as Ms. G in the Boston suburb of Lincoln. She didn't see hers, which is supposed to be good news, meaning that winter will end soon. If she had seen it, spring would not come for another six weeks.

Sounds great, until the legend meets the numbers. According to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, it has continued to snow after March 16 in 50 of the last 60 years. March gets more snow in Boston than December does. And the average temperature is 38 degrees, hardly gardening weather.

In fact, who in Boston would believe even the pessimistic groundhog prediction of spring in mid-March?

Not Angelo S. Tilas, a supervisor at the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, who said it's not until after March 15 when he can finally go from running ice skating rinks to getting the parks around the Hatch Shell ready for warm-weather picnickers and joggers. Not Dana Salo, a letter carrier in Rockport who switches from trousers to shorts April 1 and often makes the rounds amid 39 degree weather and silver dollar-sized snow flakes. Not Dewey Fraser, a Jamaica Plain arborist whose phone doesn't start ringing with customers looking for tree work until late April or May.

"We have," as he puts it, "seasonal lag."

And yet each year, thousands make pilgrimages to see groundhogs - also known as woodchucks, land beavers, and whistlepigs - hoisted on high to make their predictions. There's Charles G. Hogg of Staten Island, N.Y., who yesterday bit Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York; General Beauregard Lee of Lilburn, Ga., whose forecast was broadcast on Twitter in an apparent attempt to reach younger generations; and Manitoba Merv, a groundhog puppet operated by staff at Oak Hammock Marsh, an ecotourism center in Stonewall, Manitoba.

Then, of course, there's the granddaddy, Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania, where a town of 6,000 swells to more than 20,000 on Groundhog Day, and hotels that normally charge $79 a night rake in $400 a night. There's ice carving and singing and sousaphone playing.

"There's something almost mystical about this event," said Mickey Rowley, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of tourism, who attended the raucous festivities. "This town is abuzz for four or five days."

It's an economic bonanza. For sale are groundhog-shaped bars of soap, key chains, and hats.

"From a pure marketing standpoint, we have nothing to talk about in February," Rowley said, "and then we have this little gem."

No wonder such celebrations have spread. Many of the knockoffs across the country are newcomers to the weather predicting game. Lincoln's Ms. G, who is being pushed by Drumlin Farm and WBZ-TV's meteorologist Mish Michaels for recognition from the Legislature as the state's official groundhog, made her first appearance three years ago.

"Punxsutawney Phil has been in the limelight all these years and in the national spotlight," Michaels said yesterday. "But as our forecast goes, that groundhog has no local expertise."

He may have no local expertise, but a Middlebury College statistician concluded in a 2001 study, "Punxsutawney's Phenomenal Phorecaster," that 50 years of temperature and snowfall data from the Punxsutawney region show Phil has a shockingly good record. According to the study, he is better than 70 percent accurate in predicting whether warm weather came sooner or later.

"I was surprised," said the statistician, Paul Sommers. "It does add a little bit of credibility to that cute little animal's prognostications."

That seemingly impressive credential does not satisfy Phil's official supporters in Punxsutawney.

"Phil is always correct," said Laura Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. "100 percent correct."

The tradition of taking weather advice from a groundhog traces its roots to Pennsylvania's German settlers, who brought with them the "Candlemas Day," a winter Christian rite of candle lighting and blessings. In Germany, they would look to a badger or even a bear to help determine the forecast. Groundhogs, an American native species, were substituted in the new world. These days, at least among many dealing with the elements in Boston, forecasting by groundhogs doesn't carry much weight.

It's "a cute item to break up the doldrums of winter," said Fraser.

"Almost like a childhood fairly tale," said Salo.

"I'm not using him to judge," said Tilas. "I'm looking up at the sky and going from there."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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