The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 6, 2012

Woolly worms outsmart Phil

Woolly worms at Saturday’s festival in Lewisburg predicted temperatures cold enough for outdoor ice skating by late December, followed by two major snowstorms, said a festival judge who analyzed the caterpillars. Just how accurate are the woolly worms, especially when compared with Punxsutawney Phil? The following story was published Jan. 30, 2011, in The Daily Item.

Every Feb. 2 for more than 100 years, German descendants have gathered at a place called Gobbler’s Knob to watch if a rodent sees its shadow.

Tradition holds that if the sun is shining on that day — Candlemas Day, in the old country — there will be six more weeks of winter.

But what’s the track record of Phil, the groundhog meteorologist of Punxsutawney?

And how’s his record hold up to the tradition of the woolly worm, a centuries-old winter forecasting method celebrated in Lewisburg in October?

And what about the people who went to school to learn how to predict the weather? What do they say?

Middlebury College economics professor Paul Sommers appears to have done the most extensive research on the topic of Phil’s forecasting prowess.

Though Sommers admits he hasn’t dabbled in the subject in some time, his paper, “Punxsutawney’s Phenominal Phorecaster” is often cited as an authority.

“I don’t want to say I’ve had my fill of Phil, but I haven’t done any work on the subject in a few years,” he said. “Maybe my work will stand the test of time, I don’t know.”

By studying Phil’s predictions between 1950 and 1999, and comparing them with weather records using a complicated mathematical formula, he and his co-authors concluded the furry forecaster was correct about 70 percent of the time.

“And much more accurate when he did see his shadow than when he did not,” the paper reads.

That’s fine for the folks in western Pennsylvania, but what about in these parts?

For almost a decade and a half, folks in Lewisburg have been corralling caterpillars to examine their fur to get a hint at what the winter will be like.

As the story goes, the length and severity of the winter is predicated on the ratio of brown fur to black fur on the woolly worm in early October. The more black there is, the colder it will be, said Kim Ritter, one of the organizers of the annual Woolly Worm Festival in Hufnagle Park.

This past year, the worms predicted periods of very cold weather, but otherwise warmer with some sleet and rain, and some slushy snow. Some high winds. Children can expect about five “snow” days from school.

Ritter said her first year involved with the festival in 2006, the worms were dead-on.

“The prediction was supposed to be that we’d start off as a warm winter, then cold in the middle, and at least three snow days,” she recalled. “Then it was supposed to warm up and have spring flowers like we’re supposed to. And they were exactly right.”

It is said C.H. Curran, former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, tested the woolly worms’ accuracy in the 1950s. He allegedly found an 80 percent accuracy rate.

Other researchers have not been able to replicate his results, though.

The National Weather Service in State College relies on history and computer models to predict the weather.

Meteorologist Paul Head said the agency’s 90-day long-range forecast puts odds of a nasty winter at 50-50.

That’s because things are supposed to be very cold and dry to our north and west, but warm and wet to our south and east.

“We’re right on the cusp,” he said. “We’re pretty much on the break-even point.”

In truth, the winter so far has borne out that assessment. The winter storm last week socked places to the east with more than a foot of snow, but the Valley saw barely a few inches.

In the short-term, Head warned of more snow this week.

In fact, another winter storm, similar to what the Valley saw last week, is predicted to hit around Groundhog’s Day.

“If Phil sees his shadow while it’s snowing, I’ll know it’s a lot of hooey,” Head said. “It’s just the TV lights.”