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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Groundhogs Day


February 2nd was Groundhog Day, and in many areas around the county, including Punxsutawney Phil and Gertie the Groundhog (the local weather groundhog), an early spring was predicted. We have lots of nature and weather-related folklore, and they are worth exploring

Groundhog Day, as it has become known, is the day where Americans look to a rodent as the indicator of spring. This is an unusual tradition and has some interesting roots. As is the case with many traditions in folklore, there are many explanations, though they all agree that the tradition comes from European tradition. The date, February 2nd, is an old Catholic day known as Candlemas where priests would hand out candles to people. The weather on that day would predict whether winter would continue or if spring was on its way. The use of the groundhog as a predictor likely came from, depending on the country of origin and source, a story involving a badger, scared bear, or a hedgehog leaving its hibernation, upon seeing its shadow, it is scared back into hibernation. This tradition was brought to the US by German immigrants, and the groundhog replaced the other animals. According to the History Society of Berks County, Reading, Pennsylvania, the first recorded Groundhog Day in the US was February 2, 1841. More info can be found by reading Groundhog Day by Don Yoder.

Another folklore that is commonly used to predict the winter is the shapes found inside persimmon seeds. According to the stories, whether there is the shape of a spoon, knife, or fork will tell the type and amount of snow or ice that we will get in the area. A spoon predicts there will be lots of heavy snow in the upcoming winter. A fork predicts there will be lots of light snow, and a knife predicts there will be lots of ice. This is a common story that has no scientific basis. Though there is no evidence to support the story, it still persists. It is likely that this story became popular in a time where sophisticated weather prediction was not available.

One rhyming piece of folklore that is used to predict weather through the night has a great scientific explanation. "Red sky at night sailor's delight" is used to predict favorable weather over the night. According to NOAA and NASA, this saying has a very easy explanation. When the sun sets, the light is reflected off dust particles in the air. This interaction produces a red sunset. The presence of the dust particles means that there is not a lot of moisture in the air. This means that there is a much lower chance for rain or unpleasant weather overnight. On the other hand, if the sky is grey or dull, there is a high concentration of moisture in the air, making it much more likely that there will be undesirable weather overnight.

There are many different stories about predicting weather and the lengths of the seasons. Their origins are interesting and fun to learn. If you have any questions about natural resources, please contact Jason Haupt (jdhaupt@illinois.edu).



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