What has groundhogs to do with Canadian weather predictions? It is believed that the groundhogs can predict the arrival of Spring on 02 February and is celebrated as the Groundhog Day in Canada and the US. According to legend, the groundhog emerges from its burrow at noon on that day to look for its shadow. If it is a sunny day and the groundhog sees its shadow, according to folklore it gets frightened and returns to its hole to sleep, and winter continues for six more weeks. If it does not see its shadow, it remains outside because the worst of winter is over and the spring is on its way.
The origins of Groundhog Day lie in medieval Europe, where the day was known as Candlemas Day, a Christian festival named for the custom of lighting candles on that day. In case the day was bright and sunny, the Europeans believed that the winter would stay for another six weeks, else they predicted an early arrival of spring. Europeans had hedgehogs also predicting the beginning of spring on Candlemas Day. When European settlers came to North America, they brought the February 2nd legend with them. There being no hedgehogs in North America, they made the groundhogs do the prediction. For the early settlers, the onset of an early spring meant they could begin planting and and hence early harvest, especially with winter provisions dwindling. The major flaw with the groundhog prediction was that unlike in Europe, the long Canadian winters made the exit of the groundhogs from their burrows difficult on 02 February as the burrows were still buried in snow.
There is some truth to the shadow aspect of the legend. Sunny days in winter are generally associated with colder, drier arctic air and cloudy days with milder, moist maritime air. Given the tendency for weather conditions to persist for several days before changing, the weather on any 02 February may continue for a few days, but not necessarily any longer. Since seasons tend to follow a pattern, six more weeks of winter, rather than an early spring, is a statistically better option in Canada.
The North American tradition groundhogs predicting came from Europe with the German settlers. The first reported groundhog prediction is from Pennsylvania, USA in 1887.
Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog who lives in Wiarton, Ontario is the primary groundhog predictor of Ontario Province, who has been making his predictions since 1956. The role of Willie has been played by several groundhogs over the years as their average life span is 4 to 6 years. Unlike the other groundhogs, Wiarton Willie does not live in a burrow in the wild; he lives in a special house, safe from predators. Other provinces have their own groundhogs to carry out the prediction on 02 February.
A study of weather data over several decades for 13 cities across Canada reveals that the groundhogs’ predictions were correct only 37% of the time and this also may be by mere chance. On 02 February 2016, two of Canada’s groundhogs have made clashing weather predictions. Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam is calling for an early spring while Ontario’s Wiarton Willie expects six more weeks of winter.
This year’s winters have not only left the groundhogs confused, but also has sent the meteorologists of Weather Canada on a leather-hunt; all courtesy the El Niño effect. This effect, in the first week of December 2015, swamped Chennai (India) with the heaviest rainfall in a century. The deluge resulted in about 250 people dead, several hundred critically injured, many houses and buildings destroyed or damaged, and thousands displaced.
This is the image of our home on 03 February 2016 and the temperature 15.5oC. Normally, at this time of the year, there would be about six to 12 inches of snow with the mercury around the freezing mark. The warmest temperature recorded on the day was 9.3oC in 1991.
Where has the snow gone? Is it global warming? Is it the climate change in action? Is it the effect of El Niño phenomenon?
El Niño has a reputation of bringing mild winters across Southern Canada. It is associated with warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the Equator, to the West of South America. During the two strongest El Niño events of the past (1982-83 & 1997-98), the warmest water was right next to the coast of South America. This year the warmest water has shifted to the West of Canada and during the winter it will continue to shift further to the East.
A unique feature of this year’s El Niño is the warmer than normal ocean water temperatures that are widespread throughout the North Pacific (to the West of Canada). Another key to upcoming winter is that it appears that El Niño is peaking at the beginning of winter and a steady weakening during winter. During the winter of 1997-98, El Niño remained very strong through the winter. A weakening El Niño has a different impact on the weather pattern than does a strengthening El Niño. However, if El Niño surprises us and continues to strengthen, then the mild temperatures would persist throughout the winter.
While the strength of this year’s El Niño is comparable to 1997-98, the numerous differences in the global pattern are why a repeat of the mild winter across all of Southern Canada cannot be predicted. It is expected that there would be some snow in the next two months, prior to the Spring in April.
The unusual warm temperature has had its effect on the tulip bulbs in our garden. The bulbs are reacting to the warm weather around them and have sprouted as seen in the image above. With the next snowfall, expected in a few days, the foliage will yellow and die back, returning the bulbs to their ‘dormancy’ period. This way, the nature takes care of itself and in Spring these same bulbs will sprout again and bloom.
“When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure.” – Alice Hoffman, Here on Earth