February 2, 2006

Groundhog Flops with Scientists as Weather Forecaster

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow when he emerged from hibernation in Pennsylvania on Thursday to predict six more weeks of winter but his methods failed peer review by scientists at the world's largest weather convention.

Phil's prognosticating prowess was scrutinized earlier in the week by the scientists at 86th annual convention of American Meteorology Society in Atlanta but he failed to impress.

One researcher noted that the groundhog's accuracy since the predictions were first recorded in 1887 languished at 39 percent.

Legend has it that when the rodent emerges from hibernation on February 2 and sees its shadow it means six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, spring is near. The groundhog's staged emergence draws thousands of fans each year and has even been the subject of a movie.

But his fame failed to sway the scientists in Atlanta.

Though unsure whether a recent rise in world temperatures was a product of global warming or of natural variations, a group of meteorology students from Purdue University made short work of the groundhog debate.

"They are horrible forecasters," said Kim Klockow during the convention in Atlanta. "We still love them and all, but better to flip a coin."

"The movie was awesome, though," said Hans Schmitz, referring to the 1993 film starring Bill Murray as a weatherman forced to repeatedly relive Groundhog Day.

Greg Mandt, director of science and technology at the National Weather Service, was even less concerned about the groundhog.

He was focusing on more advanced forecasting tools --

arrival soon of the agency's newest fleet of high-tech polar orbiting satellites, which will replace an aging system from the 1970s.

The next generation systems will improve by 1,000-fold the amount of data on temperature, moisture and a host of other weather determining factors.

When asked about the groundhog, the only rodent to grace U.S. calendars with its own holiday, Mandt responded in the measured tones of a scientist.

"I don't think I would base a forecast on it," Mandt said.