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Feature: You can't trust a weather rat

By MARCELLA S. KREITER   |   Feb. 1, 2002 at 3:02 PM   |   Comments

CHICAGO, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Forget Punxsutawney Phil. Depending on the groundhog to reveal whether spring has sprung is really a sappy approach to weather forecasting, according to researchers at Goshen College in northeastern Indiana.

The groundhog is scheduled to crawl out of his hole Saturday. Legend has it if he sees his shadow, we'll have another six weeks of winter. If he doesn't, spring is just six weeks away.

The tradition stretches back to Roman times and according to the official groundhog Web site, early observances of Phil's predictions were conducted in private in wooded areas around Punxsutawney, Pa. The first official observance was in 1886 and recent celebrations have drawn tens of thousands of witnesses to Gobbler's Knob to participate in such events as the "Chainsaw Carving Exhibition" and the annual "Woodchuck Whittle Carving Show."

"We really think 115 years ago when Punxsutawney Phil started making his predictions, we didn't have the scientific tools we have now. We relied on rodents until we had the tools to make our predictions," Ryan Miller, a spokesman for the small liberal arts college, said Friday.

Miller said the school's Scholars Advocating Precision -- also known as SAP -- held a brief ceremony Friday morning before tapping the sap of Goshen's Official Maple Tree, a 75-foot sugar maple. An 8-year-old boy was drafted to taste some of the sap to make sure that's what it was.

"When we tapped today, the sap started pouring out. That could be an indication of an early spring," Miller said. "The last two years, we got very little. Today, there was a steady drip. We think this takes some of the guesswork out."

SAP head Matthew Rissler of Harrisonburg, Va., made the official tap, noting the ceremony was taking place a day ahead of Phil's annual rite.

"But that eastern rodent hasn't gotten spring right, so why should we trust him on that day, either?" Rissler asked.

Miller said the maple sap will be collected for two weeks. The amount collected will be plugged "into our top secret formula" and into a special "sapometer, a specially constructed device to measure the strength of winter against the strength of spring."

"That's boring. That's no fun," said Kelly McGrath, spokeswoman for Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. McGrath said though the zoo is groundhog-less, "I'll keep my money with the groundhog."

"The tradition needs to stay with the groundhogs," declared Lisa Kurash, a spokeswoman for the children's zoo at Brookfield Zoo in the Chicago suburb of Brookfield. "Our groundhog, Cloudy, predicted the correct forecast last year. That was her first year so she's 100 percent so far."

The "sapometer" was introduced in 2000. Miller said the device pointed to Feb. 29 that year as the official start of spring. The National Weather Service recorded record high temperatures of 67 at South Bend, Ind., that day and it hit 70 in Goshen. Last year, the "sapometer" pointed to March 7 as the first day of spring. Temperatures, however, were only in the 40s but prognosticators claimed victory anyway since a large number of students and faculty turned out in shorts or short skirts to show their support.

This year, Miller said, security has been beefed up around the tree ("Security's all the rage this year," he noted) to make sure there's no tampering.

"We're afraid as competition gets fierce between us and the groundhog, there will be interference from the rodent community," he said.

The security consists of a laser beam device. An alarm is set off if the beam is broken.

Topics: Ryan Miller
© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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