Groundhog Day is not a real holiday, much less a day associated with thankfulness. It doesn’t even merit a section of the greeting card display, at least not yet. But the appearance of the nation’s most famous marmot near the central Pennsylvania burg of Punxsutawney on Saturday was, in light of recent circumstances, cause for joy.
The Saturday morning weather on Gobbler’s Knob was overcast, for Phil did not see his shadow when he emerged on stage from the tiny doors of a tree stump. That means, lore has it, that winter will be short.
Thousands of people showed up to learn the outcome, as if drawn by some strange spiritual force, or maybe under the impression that Phil would start talking. Whatever the reason, the cold weather — it was 10 degrees in Punxsutawney on Saturday — did not keep them away.
Let’s put aside for a moment that the groundhog’s value of as a predictor of weather isn’t especially good. NPR cites data that Phil is only accurate 39 percent of the time. (Also, Phil and his predecessors usually emerge into the sunlight, seeing their shadow 6 of 7 times over the past 133 years.) Whatever the source, we’ll take any signal of an early spring and be happy for it.
Reason one is last week’s weather. The blanket of arctic cold over the country broke dozens of records for low temperatures. In Chicago, it was -21 degrees on Thursday morning — only the 15th time in the past 150 years or so it has gotten that cold or colder in Chicago, according to the National Weather Service. Incidentally, the 14th time was Wednesday.
Meteorologists and everyone else will tell you it actually feels colder, as if another 10 degrees makes difference at that point. Suffice it to say, it’s bitterly, dangerously cold, so much that schools and offices shut down, flights get delayed, people turn up in emergency rooms with serious cases of frostbite, and the deaths of at least 21 people are blamed on the weather. Those included a homeless man found in a bus shelter in Williamsville, New York, and a University of Iowa student discovered outside a building on campus, not far from his dorm.
It was plenty cold here in New England, to be sure, but it wasn’t nearly that cold — yet another reason to be thankful.
If there’s reason not to celebrate, it’s that the hard freeze revived the almost predictable comments about climate change, as if a few days are enough to tip back the planet’s average temperature (not by a long shot), reverse the melting of polar ice, and lower ocean levels. To the contrary, National Geographic reported on a climate scientist who says we haven’t experienced a real cold wave, as measured by length and intensity, in more than 20 years. Never mind that the temperature in the Midwest weirdly, abruptly warmed up — by 60 to 80 degrees — at week’s end.
But back to the upside. Around these parts, anyway, most of us can be glad to have heat. That wasn’t the case for thousands of people just a couple of months ago as Columbia Gas and its contractors scurried to replace pipes and infrastructure in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, and restore service to homes before they became unlivable for the winter.
Natural gas supplying the vast majority of homes and businesses affected by the Sept. 13 disaster has since been restored. For many, last week’s single-digit temperatures would not have been survivable without it. The gas company's work in the area isn't finished, to be sure. But memories of the temporary RV parks thrown together for the gas disaster's refugees are still fresh, and this cold snap could have been oh-so-much worse.
So even if we haven’t had to plow, shovel or blow nearly as much snow this winter as during your typical season, not yet anway, no one around here's going to argue with an early spring.
Let’s hope Phil is right, even if the odds say he isn’t.