Groundhog Day and Other Weather “Prophecies”

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Today is February 2, and you know what that means—Happy Groundhog Day! Every year in several locations around the country, a live (or sometimes “stuffed” taxidermy specimen) groundhog (also called a woodchuck) makes a prediction about when the coming spring will appear. The most famous groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil, and his annual prediction is reported on local and national news outlets. As the story goes, if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on February 2, six more weeks of winter weather lay ahead; but no shadow indicates an early spring.

The Question on Everyone’s (Chapped) Lips

Being interested in what the upcoming weather will be like is not restricted to Groundhog Day. There are several publications (like The Old Farmer’s Almanac and Farmers’ Almanac) that have been attempting to predict the weather for the entire year since 1792 and 1818, respectively. After all, as a farmer in the years before local news and national weather channels, it would be a good idea to be able to have some knowledge of the long-term weather in order to know the best dates to plant crops. Both almanacs utilize regional data from previous years, like average precipitation, high and low monthly temperatures, etc., so their “predictions” are just taking averages and reapplying them for the given year.1 But they also include tidal action of the Moon, the position of the planets, and sunspot activity in their calculations.2 Now there are also long-term weather predictions from several governmental and meteorological websites. It’s become commonplace for people to check the extended weather forecast for their vacation destination to see how much sunscreen and rain- or cold-weather gear to pack.

Believe it or not, weather prediction (at least short-term) is even mentioned in Scripture.

Believe it or not, weather prediction (at least short-term) is even mentioned in Scripture. Jesus, in Matthew 16:2–3, criticized the Pharisees and Sadducees for being able to read the short-term weather signs but completely miss the signs of the times. However long-term weather prediction is not as easy as seeing threatening skies and “predicting” a shower. Even with advanced technology, like weather satellites and computer-generated models crunching the climatological data, the predictions are often wrong for the “extended forecast.”

Checking Their Accuracy

As mentioned in a previous Groundhog Day article, Punxsutawney Phil has about a 39% accuracy in his long-term weather prediction—so it’s better to go with the opposite of what he predicts! According to meteorologist Jan Null, who has tracked regional long-term weather predictions, found that The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s accuracy ranges from 27%–90% (from 2005–2017). For example, the 2008–2009 winter forecast grade distribution for all the regions showed a total of 11 As, 6 Bs, 6 Cs, 3 Ds, and 23 Fs. Farmer’s Almanac fares no better, with long-term regional forecasts being right about 52% of the time.

Even modern forecasts using “space-age” technology show that their long-term predictions fare only slightly better. NOAA’s website (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) was examined for their 10-day (or longer) extended forecasts and was found to be accurate only about half the time. But their 7-day forecasts were 80% accurate. The National Weather Service fared worse than that on a small-sample study done in three cities in 2018, with accuracy rates ranging from 60%-84% on one- to three-day temperature forecasts.

Weather Forecasting Is Not Prophecy

Although the air of confidence portrayed by our local or national weathermen often borders on infallibility, we should not view weather predictions as “prophecy."

Although the air of confidence portrayed by our local or national weathermen often borders on infallibility, we should not view weather predictions as “prophecy.” It’s good to have a base knowledge of what the weather will be like in order to make informed decisions, especially for things like vacation planning or bringing in potted plants so they don’t get frost damage. But the track record of even the best meteorologist or climatologist agency is far from perfect.

Perfection, however, is what we expect from biblical prophecy because that is the standard that God set. We read in Deuteronomy 18:22 that if a prophet predicts something and it doesn’t come to pass, he does not need to be feared (viewed as authoritative). Also, in Deuteronomy 18:10, God tells Moses that Israel is not to have in their midst anyone who “tells fortunes or interprets omens.” Strictly speaking, it is from this perspective of superstitious folklore that Groundhog Day came about.

It Is God Who Controls the Weather

Nobody takes Punxsutawney Phil too seriously or orders their life around whether or not he sees his shadow. While we can look at Groundhog Day as simply a bit of cultural kitsch, we need to be aware of the superstition behind it. We also need to loosely accept weather forecasts and not take them as an immutable truth.

James 4:13–16 reminds us that we are to commit our decisions to the Lord’s will and that anything else is presumptuous arrogance on our part. It is not a groundhog we should think as being responsible for the snow and cold, but God (Psalm 147:16–17). It is Jesus who can make the wind and the waves still with his words (Mark 4:39–41). And, for what we might think of as better or worse (including an early spring or more winter), we as Christians can be examples in trusting and accepting whatever the Lord sends us in his wisdom and providence (Job 2:10) without complaint (Philippians 2:14–15).

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world (Philippians 2:14–15 NKJV).

Footnotes

  1. Catherine Boeckmann, “How The Old Farmer’s Almanac Makes Long Range Predictions,” last updated January 6, 2020, https://www.almanac.com/content/how-old-farmers-almanac-predicts-weather.

  2. Farmers’ Almanac, “How Does The Almanac Predict The Weather?” last accessed January 28, 2020, https://www.farmersalmanac.com/how-we-predict-weather.

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