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Groundhog Day

From a Cajun crawfish to a Reno meteorologist – skeptics claim the famous woodchuck “Punxsutawney Phil” continues to hog the spotlight, despite a questionable record of predicting the nation’s climate every Groundhog Day.

Possibly overshadowing the famous Pennsylvania groundhog this year is “Claude the Crawfish,” Louisiana Office of Tourism officials claim.

If Claude comes out of his burrow on the banks of the Red River waving his claws toward the sun, the cold snap will come to an end, tourism bureau spokeswoman Becky Craft said.



Some would argue there’s a hidden agenda behind predicting warm weather in Louisiana before the Mardi Gras in March, and it’s not necessarily the tourism component.

Claude, who’s rumored to have appeared in the movie, “Cast Away,” may be avoiding ending up in gumbo that he calls a “Cajun steambath,” Craft said. This casts no shadow of a doubt on what the outcome will be in the Southeast.



In the Northeast, Punxsutawney Phil – along with his descendants – has gained celebrity status since the German tradition started in 1888, with his predictions making the Congressional Record of the National Archives. Every Feb. 2, thousands of people flood the groundhog’s namesake town to witness whether the rodent who lives in a heated hutch at the town’s public library emerges at sunrise to see his shadow or not.

If he does, Americans are supposed to expect a harsher six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, warmer temperatures and a milder climate will dominate the early spring.

Some people even spend the night on Gobbler’s Knob in western Pennsylvania, awaiting the weighty prediction that was broadcast live for the first time on the World Wide Web in 1999.

In the last three years, a South Lake Tahoe woman has attended the massive party, traveling 40 miles from Clarion University.

“We have people travel from all over the state,” Crystal Ricotta, 23, said of the festival-type environment.

In some respects though, Ricotta snickers over the fuss and hoopla.

“He looks like a normal groundhog,” she said, indicating the rodent hasn’t allowed fame to detract from his role, despite the commercialism. Bootleg T-shirts have almost tarnished the academic nature of the event.

Still, Groundhog Day prevails, and people like Ricotta show up to see the meteorological spectacle firsthand.

“We want to know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Dave Pike, a National Weather Service meteorologist, shares a limited curiosity.

“He was wrong last year,” Pike said.

Last year, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. Yet, the Lake Tahoe Basin, in particular, experienced warmer-than-normal temperatures through the waning winter period in March.

Then again, for a figure essentially thrown to the wolves with no skillset in the unpredictable nature and science of the weather, Phil seems to predict it as accurately as the other means people use, Pike said.

To illustrate the point, Pike turned to his Meteorology 101 class years ago. His professor turned over a card from a deck every day of the class, with the ground rules that the face cards represent rainy days. He was right 75 percent of the time.

“Was there science to that?” Pike asked.

At least the extent of fur woolly bear caterpillars have to withstand a harsher winter shows some hint of scientific basis, he said.

Then, there’s the old mainstay. The Farmer’s Almanac is right about 55 percent of the time, Pike mentioned.

The almanac predicted above-normal temperatures in the West in December and colder-than-normal temperatures in the East. In January, it called for a strong wave of cold air from the northern Great Plains into the Southeast and relatively mild temperatures in the Northeast and Southwest.

The almanac forecasts a mild February, except for colder-than-usual temperatures on the West Coast.

Around the lake, the trend of the storm systems has made it a hard year to predict, Western Regional Climate Center Climatologist Kelly Redmond said.

First, the snowpack is half of normal.

Secondly, the direction of the wind accompanying these storms fails to carry the systems up the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, while the precipitation seems to stall in the Central Valley. Particularly, Sacramento and Fresno stands at about normal precipitation.

“(The storms) haven’t been dumping real well in the mountains,” Redmond said.

The average snowfall over the last 85 years amounts to 38 inches in February. In March, the average falls to 35 inches.

This weekend’s forecast calls for a warming trend, with the highs ranging in the high 40s and low 50s, and the overnight lows hover between the high teens and low 20s.

There’s a slight chance of light snow above 6,000 feet, with sunny conditions setting in on Sunday.


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