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Groundhogs and weather forecasting


Can a groundhog really predict future weather? (courtesy: Gilles Gonthier)
Can a groundhog really predict future weather? (courtesy: Gilles Gonthier)

Chris St. Clair, Weather Broadcaster, The Weather Network

February 2, 2013 — As Canada's more famous groundhogs make their spring prognostications, the idea that a rodent can predict a long term forecast isn't so far fetched.

If the groundhog sees its shadow there will be six more weeks of winter
If the groundhog sees its shadow there will be six more weeks of winter

Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia became the first groundhog in North America to weigh in on the weather Saturday morning, putting his money on another six weeks of winter. 

An hour later, Ontario's Wiarton Willie respectfully disagreed, predicting an early spring, even as parts of southern Ontario battled intense snowsqualls.

Whether you like the news, or not, using groundhogs as living weathervanes is not as unscientific as you think.

Weather affects animal behaviour

After all, we often use the behaviour of animals to foretell how nature is unfolding.

For example, many birds migrate south every autumn because their biological clock has programmed them to do so.

So if a groundhog emerges from its burrow in midwinter, can it really tell us what the weather will be like in the coming weeks?

In a way, it can.

According to legend, if the groundhog sees its shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.

But to see its shadow we require a sunny day, and winter sunny days almost always indicate that high pressure is dominant.

According to Shubenacadie Sam, there will be 6 more weeks of winter
According to Shubenacadie Sam, there will be 6 more weeks of winter

In our northern climate, dominant high pressure in the winter is usually arctic in nature which means cold weather.

On the other hand, if there is no shadow, it must be cloudy. That's an indication that low pressure is the more dominant weather feature, and low pressure always has a warm front that ushers in the clouds and milder weather.

Another piece of science comes into play this time of year, and you may have noticed it yourself.

On a sunny afternoon, sheltered from the wind and in the direct light of the sun you can actually feel its warmth on your exposed flesh. The length of the day is growing and the energy of our distant sun is again heating our northern atmosphere.

It’s called “solar loading” energy -- a result of the sun building up again in the northern hemisphere.  That energy is heating the surface as well as the atmosphere.

It won’t be more than another six weeks or so until we see even more evidence that “spring” is near!

With files from staff writers

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