Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021
As the sun dawns on Groundhog Day 2021, two iconoclasts of meteorology will pit their prognosticating powers against one another, continuing one of the country’s most enduring east-versus-west battles.
On the east cost (rather, roughly 300 miles inland) and rising two hours earlier is Punxsutawney Phil, the heavyweight of this forecasting contest. Phil has nearly every available advantage: A legacy that spans more than a century and which spawned a classic Hollywood film adored by millions (particularly Buddhists), a line of merch, and his own inner circle of top-hatted handlers and hype men.
Phil’s appearance every Feb. 2 draws tens of thousands of fans. His annual prophecies are why there is a Groundhog Day to begin with, the literal reason for the season.*
He’s also a real, live groundhog.
Boulder’s own Flatiron Freddy is, well, neither. A yellow bellied marmot, Freddy is stuffed — not with the secret wisdom of unforetold weather events, but with actual stuffing, having died some years ago.**
How much rock can a rock chuck rock — or chuck?
Phil and Freddy are cousins. Groundhogs (Marmota monax) and yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) are cousins, related species under the genus marmota, family sciuridae and order rodentia.
Yellow-bellied marmots are sometimes also known as rock chucks.
Though he may be lacking in international acclaim and certain faculties of the living, Freddy has his claw on the pulse of something Phil could use a bit more of: A reliant method of prediction.
Human handlers for Phil and Freddy claim 100% accuracy rates for their respective rodents. But an exclusive investigation from Boulder Beat — we made two phone calls, sent three emails, conducted one Google search and did some math — reveals that Flatiron Freddy is right more than twice as often as the Grand Poobah of Gobbler’s Knob.
To err is human; to forgive, diviner
Pre-prophesying routines for the slight seers are remarkably similar. Both involve scrolls and, usually, poems. Both also require human assistance — to the detriment of Phil’s reputation as an augur of atmospheric conditions.
Two tomes are presented to Phil on the morning of his big guess. Once placed on his stump, Phil consorts with the cosmos and divines the fate of millions. It is then the job of the Inner Circle’s president — this year, Jeffrey Lundy — to “communicate with Phil” using “Groundhogese” — a language “very much like animal sign language,” Lundy said.
“It’s not actual words; it’s winks and nods.”
It has happened in the past that Phil’s divination gets lost in translation — accounting for the groundhog’s abysmal accuracy. As reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which has a division in Boulder; point Freddy), the National Climactic Data Center and the Canadian Weather Service, Phil correctly predicts pending weather about 40% of the time.
“Sometimes, you can get it wrong,” said Lundy, who will be making his first-ever interpretation this year. “Phil will get it right. Hopefully I get it right.”
Phil is remarkably accommodating when presidents muddle his predictions, Lundy said, a grace that has come with age.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, he was a little more sensitive than he is now. He’s pretty mellow.”
It’s always sunny in Boulder
Freddy makes his debut with only one scroll in paw, having already foreseen the future from the comfort of his burrow. Freddy generally chooses to arrive in style: He’s been known to fly in via zipline, parachute and gondola, roll up in a monster truck, or — when he’s feeling more active — ski to his morning appointment with dozens of adoring fans.
Official records of Freddy’s conjectures aren’t kept. According to handler and OSMP Ranger Dave Gustafson, Freddy’s partnership with the city began in 2008 (or thereabouts). A massive snowfall led to the event’s cancellation one year, leaving a decade of active forecasting. Only once does Gustafson recall Freddy presaging an early spring.
Assuming Gustafson’s recollections are correct, Boulder’s beloved mountain marmot a 90% success rate. In this, Freddy far surpasses Phil, and is perhaps the most accurate ground-dwelling mammal in all of America.***
Freddy’s secret is simple, Gustafson said. Winter weather in Colorado is typically predictable in that our snowiest months come in the spring. And with over 300 days of sun a year, Feb. 2 is usually clear and bright — prime shadow-casting conditions.
“The majority of the times that I remember,” Gustafson said, “it’s always been sunny.”
A dire prediction
This year’s festivities will look a little different for both Freddy and Phil. They will have to make their prognostications sans a live crowd, an important safety measure during COVID. Phil will do his divining before a cadre of cardboard cutouts; Freddy will be surrounded by intimate friends and family only. Both will, however, be attended by camera crews.
Neither rodent has been ruffled by the friendly competition between them, handlers said. Least of all Phil.
“If you’re the queen of England,” said Lundy, “you don’t get upset if someone else calls themselves queen. You know you’re the queen.”
Plus, Lundy adds, while Freddy’s hunches are confined to Colorado, Phil’s is a global one. In other words, it’s always spring somewhere.
With the effects of climate change, said Gustafson, that’s unfortunately true. And it’s causing the ranks of fuzzy forecasters to expand — literally.
“Groundhogs are a great predictor of how we’re treating the earth,” Gustafson said. “They’re more obese in certain areas because they’re not sleeping as much. They’re coming out and eating more.”
While we’ll have to wait and see what the skies say Feb. 2 — human meteorologists call for a mostly sunny morning — Freddy is ready with a dire warning that extends far beyond this winter, to the fate of the planet itself.
Said Gustafson, “His prediction is if we don’t turn things around, things are going to get pretty bad” — for marmots and humans alike.
Watch Phil and Freddy for yourself: Sign up here to see Freddy from 8-8:30 a.m. MST, or for a prelude event the night before (for the kids) where you can learn about Freddy and his friends. Phil will be streaming live, starting at 6:30 a.m. EST, at groundhog.org.
*Groundhog Day, like many American holidays, has pagan roots. Feb. 2 is halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, making it an auspicious day for celebrations of impending spring. Celts celebrated it as Imbolc; European Christians later called it Candlemas. The first Groundhog Day was indeed in Punxsutawney, Pa., purportedly presided over by the same Phil responsible for Tuesday’s affair. As Lundy told me, Phil is 135 years old.
**Freddy, like Phil, is more than a century old — “centuries,” according to Gustafson: cave drawings depict Freddy prognosticating to indigenous peoples. His after-life began one characteristically sunny day in 1977, the legend goes, on the then-open-to-traffic Pearl Street. Freddy was, per usual in his offseason, dodging cars for cash and the delight of onlookers, when tragedy — in the form of a VW bus — struck. Boulderites, outraged by his death, moved to make Pearl Street pedestrian-only, birthing the walking mall we all know and love today and cementing Freddy’s Forrest Gump-like predilection for moving the wheels of history forward.
***No word on how Freddy stacks up against Lander Lil, Wyoming’s soothsaying prairie dog and the only female forecaster on these lists. Like many of her peers, Lil claims 100% accuracy.
Author’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Lundy’s surname.
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Climate Boulder Canadian Weather Service city of Boulder climate change Flatiron Freddy groundhog Groundhog Day marmot National Climactic Data Center National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Open Space and Mountain Parks OSMP Punxsutawney Phil yellow-bellied marmot