In the borough of Punxsutawney, nestled in the Allegheny plateau northeast of Pittsburgh, PA, the annual rite of rodent-oriented weather prediction was completed with all due gravitas and solemnity. This year, Punxsutawney Phil, “the Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of All Prognosticators”, was roused from his den to deliver his prediction at 7 am and foretold that spring would be early this year.
For nearly 300 years, the Pennsylvania Dutch have revered the yearly meteorological wisdom of the “grundsau” or groundhog. Traditionally, the prediction dictated that, should the varmint see its shadow and retreat into its burrow, we would experience 6 more weeks of winter. But if, the fuzzy rascal does not see its shadow and gambols about instead, spring would be just 6 weeks away.
Now, any Dutchman will tell you this “narrish g’shwetz” is just foolish talk (which conveniently is what “narrish g’shwetz” means in Pennsylvania Dutch). After all, if you look at the calendar, consider that 6 weeks after February 2 is March 15 — only 5 days before the Vernal Equinox and the first day of Spring.
We have two big questions for Phil:
- Since ice and snow on the first day of Spring is more common than not, how long will the cold weather last?
- How will your prediction affect our energy bills in the coming weeks and months?
The answers depend largely on the location of your meteorological prognosticating rodent, cloud cover, and — above all — timing.
Predictions Clouded by Controversy?
The trouble is that Phil’s prediction was officially made at 7 am. The significance is that nighttime cloud cover veiled most of the entire Northeast until dissipating completely by 8 am. As a result, early-rising Holtsville Hal also concurred with Phil.
However, later rising ground hogs faced higher risk of seeing their shadows. Some 230 miles east of Punxsutawney, Reading, PA’s Pagoda Patty rose at 7:20 AM, glimpsed her shadow atop Mt. Penn, and concluded more winter was on the way. Further east, Staten Island Chuck emerged a few minutes before 7:30 AM to retreating cloud cover that left just enough to let him agree with Phil. Indeed, such discrepancies hint at a scandal brewing among the region’s rodent weatherpersons.
It’s no secret that many residents of Punxsutawney and the world at large were depending on Phil to deliver an accurate prediction during one of the strongest El Niños on record. If Phil had been delayed somehow, his prediction, too, would have been the complete opposite and doubtlessly would have further sullied his reputation.
One cynically wonders if “the fix was in” at Gobbler’s Knob. What did Phil know about the cloud cover and when did he know it? Or was Phil in fact pressured by outside actors to make the announcement at 7 am rather than wait for revised weather data? We mortals may never learn the truth. (Cue X-Files theme…)
The Data Says You’re Saving Money
But whether your weather forecast comes from a hibernating furry professional or not, the good news is that all this warmth naturally translates into lower energy bills. For heating oil users, EIA says “The average household is now expected to spend $1,088 for heating oil this winter, $763 less than last winter.”
While natural gas use surged during the last two weeks of January 2016, supplies remain very strong, 16% higher than the 5-year average even after the blizzard that buried the Northeast US. Prices also remain under $3/mmBTu, and those who heat their homes with natural gas are expected to pay about $110 (17%) less. Those heating with electricity in the Midwest, Northeast, and South will spend 9% less than last year. Consumers in the West, however, will spend 9% more.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts that the rest of winter will continue with above-normal temperatures in most of the northern tier of states while below normal temperatures will persist in Texas and the Southwest. El Niño conditions in the Pacific persist, but it is assumed these have already peaked and that sea surface temperatures in the Equatorial Southern Oscillation (ENSO) area will gradually cool, producing an ENSO-neutral condition by late spring or early summer. While there is a possibility for a La Niña to develop next winter, there remains too much uncertainty to make an honest and accurate prediction.
One more thing — Spring will still begin on Sunday, March 20, 2016.