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Laying blame on a rodent for our weather

Those who think their jobs are stressful, try being a groundhog. After weeks of bitter winter, eyes across North America were trained on a number of groundhogs emerging Sunday from their dens on Groundhog Day to predict what’s in store for the next few weeks.

A couple of groundhogs were understandably nervous when they saw their shadows, meaning six more weeks of winter. But don’t shoot the messengers — it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Groundhog Wiarton Willie from Wiarton, Ont., posted this on Twitter on Sunday: “Oh dear, not sure you want to hear this, but. ... ” Willie saw his shadow.

So did Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. An angry Jay Charlie responded to Phil’s bad news over the Internet, tweeting: “I’d just like to take a moment to say (expletive) you to Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog.”

Leesa Harwood tweeted: “Tell us it ain’t so Phil.”

Phil has good reason to be stressed-out. Last year, he botched his prediction for an early spring and a prosecutor filed a criminal indictment against the fur-ball for lying. While Phil was upbeat in his prediction, there was still more than a foot of snow the first day of spring in many parts of the northeastern U.S.

Wiarton Willie also missed the mark in 2013, and winter raged on despite not seeing his shadow — meaning an early spring was inevitable.

But the town defended Willie and said it was not considering criminal charges for lying. “No one can dispute that Wiarton Willie has had a challenging year in 2013,” the town said in a statement. “Just two weeks ago spring was definitely in the air. Then, storms from the States surged across Canada. Although Wiarton Willie made a valiant attempt at keeping winter at bay, he couldn’t stop the inevitable.”

The town last year was bold enough to blame Phil for messing up Willie’s prediction, for failing to forecast U.S. storms that blew north to Canada.

Wiarton Mayor John Close told the media there were no death threats against Willie and no threat of legal action.

This year’s predictions have been equally controversial, exposing a communication gap between groundhogs. While Willie and Phil saw their shadows, two other groundhogs elsewhere in Canada did not, calling for an early spring. “No shadow! I repeat, No shadow!” the jubilant Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam tweeted early Sunday morning.

And groundhog watchers in Manitoba are rejoicing. Winnipeg Willow did not see her shadow as well. Willow’s handlers at the Prairie Wildlife Centre say Manitobans “can expect a warm transition into springtime after a record-breaking frosty winter.”

Backing Willow’s prediction, Merv the groundhog at Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh agrees spring will be early.

Meanwhile, Environment Canada cautions that we need to be leery of groundhog predictions.

Legend has it that groundhogs emerging from their dens on Feb. 2 have an uncanny sense of telling what’s in store for the rest of winter. Senior climatologist David Phillips makes his own predictions. While admitting Canadians can be forgiven for seeking hope from a groundhog, since the country has been gripped in near-historic low temperatures for months, winter is here for a few more weeks.

“I wish there was always a certain allotment of winter days. If that was the case, we would have used them all up (by now) and we’d be nicely coasting towards a warmer than normal spring,” said Phillips. “Well, that’s not the case. This looks like a continuation of what we’ve seen for several weeks now.”

Chris Scott, chief meteorologist with the Weather Network, also as little faith in groundhog-predictions, telling Canadians to take the findings “with a grain of salt.”

“I think we’re being overly optimistic when we look at the groundhog and say, ‘Please, give us a sign of spring.’ We don’t see that on the horizon,” said Scott.

The first documented North American reference to Groundhog Day was on Feb. 4, 1841, by storekeeper James Morris of Morgantown, Pa. German settlers there established the tradition based on the shadow theory.

It eventually evolved into a time to party and forget winter, as the timeless and hilarious 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, aptly portrayed.

Who really cares if the groundhogs are accurate in their predictions?

Groundhog Day is meant for comedic relief in coping with winter that challenges our patience.

Laughter is a cure-all. We sure need it this winter.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.



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