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Groundhog Day celebrates winter outlook for 121st time

Traditionally, if he sees his shadow, it will lead to six more weeks of winter.

Since Bill Murray hit the silver screen as meteorologist Phil Connors in the film “Groundhog Day,” Punxsutawney, Pa., has been the center of attention every Feb. 2.

That day each year, Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his hole at Gobbler’s Knob to predict the coming of spring, drawing people from all over the world to watch 16 men in top hats and tails pull the famous rodent out of a log and translate his seasonal forecast.

The saying goes that if the groundhog emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, there’s going to be six more weeks of winter.

It’s a lighthearted affair, but some see the fact behind the folklore.

If the groundhog sees its shadow, it’s an indicator of arctic pressure and cold weather, said Peter Boulay, an assistant state climatologist for the State Climatology Office, which is part of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

No shadow means there’s still moisture in the air and perhaps rain, which typically brings more spring-like temperatures, Boulay said.

But organizers, like Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle member Mike Johnston, don’t care as much about the science.

“We get people that come in and take an awfully serious look at Groundhog Day,” Johnston said. “If you have to question the science, then perhaps you’ve missed the point.”

Pennsylvania might have the corner on the groundhog festivities, but Minnesota’s had its share of history on Groundhog Day, said Mark Seeley, a University climatologist and meteorologist.

In 1991, recorded temperatures ranged from high 40s to mid-60s, he said.

“Groundhog Day, 1991, you could have gone out and played golf or tennis,” Seeley said.

But five years later, in 1996, Minnesotans were wearing hats and mittens when the state hit a new record for its coldest temperature.

On that day, 10 communities, mostly in northern Minnesota, reported temperatures of minus 50 and lower, Seeley said.

Tower, Minn., hit a state record of minus 60.

“Now that’s not windchill, that’s actual air temperature,” Seeley said. “That’s so cold it hurts.

“What I find historically interesting is across 150 years of Minnesota history, where we have weather readings on Groundhog Day, the all-time extremes occurred within five years of each other,” he said.

As for Phil’s prediction, Johnston said skeptics can rest assured.

“This will be Phil’s 121st prediction,” he said. “He has never been wrong.”

Wild groundhogs have a lifespan of about six years, but Phil’s handlers have claimed a magical elixir gives the furry creature extended longevity.

Johnston said the day is about more than predicting the start of spring.

“We like to tell people there are many serious and important things in the world today, and Groundhog Day most assuredly isn’t one of them,” he said.

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