Mammalian weather forecasting

  • Mammalian weather forecasting
    08.02.2011 11:40


    February 2nd, Candlemas Day, was windy, cloudy and mild across much of the UK. According to weather lore, therefore, we should have seen the last of any severe cold and snow this winter:

    "If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
    Winter will have another flight.
    If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
    Winter will not come again."

    Across Europe, traditionally a badger or bear was procured or observed – if it was startled by its own shadow, the legend goes, it would scurry back to its sett or den, somehow knowing that harsh weather would continue, or would return before winter was out.

    This tradition was exported to America by German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, but finding badgers in short supply the forecasting duties devolved onto the more numerous groundhog.

    So February 2nd became Groundhog Day, most notably celebrated at Gobblers Knob near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, using a dynasty of groundhogs, all called Punxsutawney Phil.

    If Phil sees his shadow then there are supposedly another six weeks of winter. This year it was cloudy, so as far as the groundhog is concerned then in that corner of Pennsylvania, and one presumes the wider region of the north-eastern States, spring should arrive early.

    An even earlier celebration than Candlemas, and one that was probably subsumed by the later Christian festival, was Imbolc, a Celtic day of feasting, bonfires and prognostication that marked the mid-point of winter around the start of February.

    This was about the time of the first lactation of newly-pregnant ewes, and the name may have derived from I Mbolg, which means ‘in the belly’ in Old Irish, or from Oimelc, meaning ‘ewe's milk’.

    The Celts had similar verses regarding creatures emerging from their holes but relied more on the snake, which would allegedly sally forth no matter how cold the day if winter was on its way out. The Scottish Gaelic adage about Imbolc goes like this:

    “Thig an nathair as an toll
    Là donn Brìde,
    Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
    Air leac an lair”.

    Or in English:

    "The serpent will come from the hole
    On the brown Day of Bride,
    Though there should be three feet of snow
    On the flat surface of the ground.”

    At the moment we may have to rely on these old saws, and some investigations have claimed a possible 50 to 60 per cent “accuracy” in Groundhog Day predictions. That’s barely better than flipping a coin but maybe patterns set in early February tend to stick sometimes.

    The outlook is highly uncertain beyond a few very mild days this week. It looks like cooling off around Valentine’s Day and temperatures may fall below average for a few days with notably chillier days and overnight frosts returning - but it is far from certain at the moment and could warm up again by the start of March.

    In the US, the jury is out on Punxsutawney Phil – it seems that there is still a lot of very cold weather around for a few days but a significant warming is expected by the end of this week.

    By: Stephen Davenport