February 2 is Groundhog Day, which means Americans are telling the weather in a Pennsylvania town as experienced by a fat rodent.
Save him (Image: AP)
This year, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. The superstition goes if the groundhog sees its shadow, then there'll be six more weeks of winter, and if not, the US is treated to an early spring. Phil is no better at predicting the weather than a coin flip. But we wanted to know how the little dude's predicting abilities (and his fate), would change if we threw climate change into the mix.
"We have forecasts and outlooks that go out to about one year and [climate] projections that are averages around 10, 20, 30 years. The trend in the eastern United States is towards warmer and wetter," Elizabeth Becker, Research Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, told Gizmodo. As a reminder: "Weather" is what Phil experiences day-to-day. "Climate" is the long-term trend over time.
If it rains more, the groundhog will see its shadow less, meaning more predictions of early spring. If the climate trends warmer, then spring really will seem to come earlier. So, by my own conclusion, climate change will actually yield better Groundhog Day predicting power over time. Maybe. Of course, "the groundhog doesn't really have any basis in science whatsoever," said Becker.
But at least one scientist told us that we should probably be worrying about the groundhog's health with a changing climate, too. Groundhogs hibernate, meaning that after they eat a whole lot to fatten up, they spend much of the year sleeping, explained Roelof Hut, assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Hibernating species usually experience a period of deep sleep, waking up every few weeks. The groundhogs expend almost all of their fat reserves during these so-called arousal periods. Climate change could mean more arousals, and quicker depletion of the groundhog's fat.
"At a certain point when they go really skinny they may die in hibernation," said Hut. "Alternatively, they may decide to emerge early from hibernations. But they will emerge skinnier anyway, or die because they're so skinny."
Sorry, Phil. Not even America's strangest superstition is safe from climate change's clutches.