Groundhog Day and Climate Change

You know the drill. If a groundhog comes out of its burrow on this day and sees its shadow, it retreats back inside and we can expect six more weeks of winter. On the other hand, if the groundhog comes out and sees no shadow, it leaves the burrow and spring will quickly ensue. Several towns have managed to make a festival of this thin gruel, generating a little revenue along the way. For as long as I can remember, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania has garnered the greatest visibility and reaped the largest benefit.

Apparently this powerful predictor dates way back. We’re told that Germans brought this forecast tool with them from the old country when they settled over here. The prescient beast of choice back in Europe was either a badger or a bear.

My own life journey with Groundhog Day has three distinct phases. The first, my childhood, was simple acceptance of the day at face value, as the first anniversary/observance of note in the year’s rhythm since January 1 (there was no Martin Luther King Day back then). It symbolized for me the general dreariness of winter.

The second period ran through the 1970’s and 1980’s. After I became an atmospheric scientist, I used to wonder once each year whether there might be some smidgen of factual basis for the idea. After all, that other folklore such as “red skies at night, sailors’ delight; red skies at morning, sailors take warning,” or “mares’ tails and mackerels’ scales make lofty ships carry low sails,” was subsequently seen to have a rationale as the science has developed.

Here was the best I could come up with (usually while jogging). With winter would come the strengthening of the jet stream and development of a storm track. As winter deepened, the storm track would move further south, toward the equator. For points north of this storm track, it would be cold and the sun would be out, and the groundhog would see its shadow. If, however, the storm track were to be moving back toward the pole, and overhead ( so the groundhog would see no shadow), spring at that particular season or location might not be so far behind…

Such is the giant intellect you are dealing with as readers of this blog. Please tell me you have a better logic!

The third phase began for me, and for all of us, in 1993, with the arrival of the Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day. We all know the wonderful story. Bill Murray is a jaded, embittered Pittsburgh weatherman. At a relatively young age he is already a cynical curmudgeon. He’s sour on his job and his life – and on this annual assignment of covering Groundhog Day for his station. The one bright spot for him is that he’s covering this story with his news producer, Rita (Andie McDowell). This particular year, he’s forced to relive this same day over and over again, in Punxsutawney. As he realizes what is happening, he gets more and more desperate to break free, and in the process, accentuates his already egregious character defects. Rita keeps urging him to view his circumstances differently, to use it as an opportunity to turn his life around. When he finally yields to this, and becomes less self-absorbed, more concerned for others, and more loving, he breaks free of the cycle – and gets the girl.

How does climate change play into all this? The atmospheric scientist in me says maybe we should change the folklore to read, “If the groundhog sees its shadow, it retreats to the burrow and we experience three more weeks of winter.”

But the part of me that follows the news in papers and on television thinks that we’re already, as a nation and a world, reliving a surreal Groundhog Day of the Bill Murray kind with regard to this issue.

Each day we awake to the sound and the words of people claiming climate change is a hoax and a fraud. Each day, before night falls, we hear a rebuttal from scientists, the appeal to the data, the trends to date, and the outlook ahead for temperatures, cycles of flood and drought, the glaciers and the Arctic ice pack, and biodiversity (including but not limited to groundhogs). Talk about déjà vu!

Forget that business about the shadow. It’s the 21st century noise that drives the groundhog back inside! With this blather going on, and its repetition, I’ll fight Punxsutawney Phil for a share of his burrow and the peace and quiet it promises.

But maybe we have the same out as Bill Murray. Maybe, we – that is, all seven billion of us – can take a more insightful look around at each other, and commit just a little more to finding common cause rather than finding fault. Maybe we can look past the polarizing “climate change” label to the very real suite of resource issues, environmental problems, and hazard threats that lie beyond, and partner up as we cope. Maybe we can break free of this cycle, and move to a different and better future.

Ready for February 3, anyone?

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2 Responses to Groundhog Day and Climate Change

  1. Roger Caiazza says:

    I agree with your conclusion that maybe we should look past “the polarizing ‘climate change’ label to the very real suite of resource issues, environmental problems, and hazard threats that lie beyond, and partner up as we cope”. However, I don’t think that you or the AMS has done a very good job getting beyond the polarizing language of the current debate and that is an impediment to partnering up. Moreover, continued focus on climate change is detracting from the real issue of weather impacts on society.

    I believe that you used polarizing language when you said:
    “Each day we awake to the sound and the words of people claiming climate change is a hoax and a fraud. Each day, before night falls, we hear a rebuttal from scientists, the appeal to the data, the trends to date, and the outlook ahead for temperatures, cycles of flood and drought, the glaciers and the Arctic ice pack, and biodiversity (including but not limited to groundhogs).”

    In my opinion, you used polarized language comparing people to scientists. I do appreciate the fact that you did not label the people as deniers. I think that at least one paper in the AMS session on Climate Change communications was also guilty of the same problem. I am sorry, but categorizing everyone who has concerns about some of the science to be a “denier” that at best is comparable to the tobacco industry denying the link between smoking and cancer and at worst denies the Holocaust, is not conducive to working together.

    There also is a serious problem over-simplifying the debate. I think you were guilty of that here too. Clearly the climate is changing but it is not as clearly obvious how much of that is due to natural, internal variability, land-use changes or the greenhouse effect. You appeal to the authority of the data but, in my opinion, there are issues with the data that may not affect the sign of the trend but sure could affect the magnitude. Every step removed from the facts that the climate is warming and there are more man-made GHG constituents in the atmosphere is that much less unequivocal.

    So now consider where society is today. Take, for example, the New York Climate Action Plan which proposes to reduce NY GHG emissions 80% by 2050. The Interim Report Overview Chapter (http://www.nyclimatechange.us/ewebeditpro/items/O109F24012.pdf) illustrates a problem because the policy options are filled with statements like “Build greater resilience to projected climate change impacts into drinking water and wastewater infrastructure systems”. There is an implication in this statement and throughout this document that were it not for climate change that the drinking water and wastewater infrastructure systems are resilient to weather impacts. I don’t agree with that implication. A hurricane is going to hit New York City with or without climate change. The incremental difference between the hurricane with or without climate change is not going to be the difference between a catastrophe and an inconvenience. If we don’t address potential impacts of a hurricane but manage to reduce GHG concentrations to whatever level you think reduces climate change there will be a catastrophe.

    I believe the AMS has been a strong advocate for making society more robust to weather. I think you have made the same argument in this blog and I agree. However, I strongly believe that the constant drumbeat of hype regarding climate change as the cause of any extreme weather event that happens today and the dire predictions for the outlook ahead for temperatures, cycles of flood and drought, the glaciers and the Arctic ice pack of what will happen tomorrow detract from that message. I believe AMS should be in the forefront saying weather impacts are huge to our society and we should be addressing how to minimize those impacts. The fact that effort may also alleviate climate change effects is a bonus. Climate change should not be the driver of this effort.

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