Why Do We Use a Groundhog to Forecast the Weather?

Jeff Swensen, Getty Images
Jeff Swensen, Getty Images

It's only been in the past 60 or so years that humans have been able to rely on television meteorologists for weather predictions. Before Al Roker, the Babylonians looked at cloud formations; in 300 BCE, the Chinese had a calendar broken into 24 festivals, each with its own unique weather patterns.

Today we use satellites and other costly equipment to gauge our environment, examining changes in the atmosphere and running sophisticated computer models. And sometimes, we just stare at a groundhog.

Every February 2, a doughy rodent named Punxsutawney Phil briefly emerges from his winter hibernation to have a look around. If he sees his shadow, that means there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't, we can assume that warm weather is looming.

The ritual has been carried out in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania every year since 1887. Relying on Phil is actually not much better than flipping a coin—he's right an estimated 64.4 percent of the time—but clearly someone at one time believed a groundhog had predictive abilities. Who? And why?

To understand Phil's current status, it helps to know that superstition and weather have had a long association. Observers of the Christian holiday Candlemas, for example, received candles blessed by clergymen. If the skies were cloudy that day, warm weather was imminent; if the sun was out, winter would persist.

In Europe, the idea that winter's duration could be foretold was carried over to animal behavior. Hibernating animals like bears, marmots, and hedgehogs were observed to see when they'd emerge from their dens. 

In Germany, the weather was anticipated by badgers. When Germans began settling in Pennsylvania, however, badgers weren't so readily available: The easiest hibernating animal to locate was the groundhog. In 1887, a newspaper editor began circulating the idea that one groundhog in particular, Punxsutawney Phil, was a meteorological wonder. Before long, the entire country became preoccupied with Phil’s prognosticating, and an annual tradition was born.

Phil isn't the only one in the business of long-range forecasting. The Old Farmer's Almanac, a yearly digest of upcoming weather patterns for large geographical areas, is prepared up to 18 months in advance: Its editors claim an 80 percent accuracy rate, though some meteorologists dispute the viability of assessing weather more than two weeks out.

Last year, Phil "predicted" six more weeks of winter. It turned out to be the second-warmest February on record.

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What Are the Santa Ana Winds?

Satellite image of Santa Ana winds in Southern California.
Satellite image of Santa Ana winds in Southern California.
NASA/JPL-Caltech, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Two massive wildfires burning in California have now become the state's deadliest and most destructive. In Northern California, the Camp Fire near Chico decimated the town of Paradise and killed 29 people as of November 12, 2018. In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire started near Simi Valley northwest of Los Angeles, and has torched hundreds of homes in Malibu and other communities.

The National Weather Service says that a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, and gusty Santa Ana winds have created perfect conditions for cataclysmic fires.

What are these Santa Ana winds and why do they help create fire conditions?

Santa Anas are dry, warm (often hot) winds that blow westward through Southern California toward the coast. They're usually seasonal, and typically occur between October and March and peak in December. They originate when high pressure systems form over the high-elevation deserts of the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains. Air from the system flows clockwise, so winds on the southern side of the system push west towards the Pacific Ocean.

The winds pass over the mountains between coastal California and the inland deserts. As they flow downslope, the air gets compressed and rises in temperature at a rate of almost 29 degrees per mile of descent. While air's temperature rises, its relative humidity drops, commonly to less than 20 percent and sometimes to even less than 10 percent. The winds also increase dramatically in speed when they're forced through narrow mountain passes and canyons.

By the time the winds hit the coastal areas, they're very dry, warm, and moving fast. This is what makes them problematic. They dry out vegetation, making it better fuel for a fire—and once a fire starts, the winds fan the flames and help spread them.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

So, why are the winds called "Santa Ana winds"?

"While the origin and cause of the Santa Ana winds are not in dispute," writes Robert Fovell, currently a professor of atmospheric and environmental sciences at SUNY Albany, "the origin of the name is."

One fairly popular explanation is that the name comes from a Native American word, santana, which means "devil wind" and was corrupted into Santa Ana. But according to Fovell, the Los Angeles Times, and other sources, no one has found any words similar to santana with that definition in any of the native languages of the area.

Another explanation is that the winds were named for Mexican politician and general Antonio López de Santa Anna, possibly in reference to dust storms kicked up by the cavalry he commanded. Santa Anna never operated in southern California, though, and spelled his name with two n's. The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this etymology as having no foundation.

In the early 1930s, an article in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings suggested that the name might have originated with early Spanish explorers, who had a "custom of naming places and events for the saint's day on which they happened or were discovered." In this case, they might have noted the winds on St. Anne's day and named them for her. This also seems unlikely to historians, though, because a few Santa Ana winds, experienced for the first time, probably wouldn't have warranted naming—and the winds aren't recorded with any name until much later, anyway. St. Anne's feast day is also July 26, when a Santa Ana wind is unlikely.

The most common and accepted etymology, says Fovell, is that the winds' name simply derives from the Santa Ana canyon in Orange County.

This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.

Why Do Babies Learn to Crawl Before They Walk?

iStock/ozgurdonmaz
iStock/ozgurdonmaz

Fabian van den Berg:

Babies walk or dance before they crawl actually, well sort of, you’ll see.

Babies are amazing little creatures. They are very different from adults and should be treated as such. They aren’t born as blank slates, though; a lot of things are innate, and a lot of things are learned. And boy can they learn—not just by watching others do things, but also by experimenting. There’s a reason why early developmental psychologists called them "little scientists." They will form strategies on their own, test them out, and choose the best one.

We’ll focus on walking for now.

Newborns come fully equipped with a stepping reflex. If you happen to have a newborn at your disposal you can try it out (but support the head). By dragging them a bit over a surface, the feeling of their feet/soles touching will initiate a stepping reflex, it looks like they’re walking. (Don’t let go though, they are definitely not ready to stand on their own yet and will fall down.)

The reflex tends to be present for the first two months, sometimes returning right before they start to walk. It’s thought that the reflex helps to train the muscles and motor nerves. The reason why it disappears is thought to be because the legs become too heavy, the muscles grow faster than their strength. Basically, they become too chubby and the reflex doesn’t work anymore.

In a way, they are born with the ability to walk or dance (it differs a bit from baby to baby), but then lose it again because they grow so fast.

There are a lot more interesting and fun baby reflexes, like swimming and grasping, but that’s for another answer.

That brings us to toddlers and locomotion: Many parents will attest they looked forward to their baby being able to move on their own, and as soon as they did they missed the times the little bugger would stay put.

Infants can be very motivated, which is where the little scientist pops up. Having toys or anything interesting looking sitting around is very tempting. Kids love touching things, they explore, and they really want to go there… But how…

Should they wait for the big person to either bring them there or bring the shiny to them? No, of course not. They can move now—so off they go!

They will experiment and explore a lot of different ways of getting around. A very popular one is scooting. They are laying there (they’re good at that), but they want to be elsewhere. Almost all children will solve this conundrum by pulling or pushing themselves using their hands [and] scooting or shuffling across the floor. A popular and funny variation is scooting on their bums. If they can sit, they’ll prefer to sit and just use their arms and legs to push themselves around.

It’s not uncommon for children to be in this stage until they learn how to walk. It really is a matter of what works best for them.

Crawling is merely a more advanced version of scooting. Their legs become stronger and they are able to control them better. They will happen upon crawling by trial and error, and find that it can bring them from Point A to Point B faster than scooting.

The logic is simple to follow: I want to go over there, crawling works best, so crawling it is.

Strategy use is very common in children, you see it in many aspects. They will try out new things, compare it to old things, and decide on whatever works best. In the case of crawling it’s mostly about speed. But as I said before, not all kids crawl. For some scooting works best, and they’ll use it until they learn how to walk.

It’s also not strange to see them use different strategies, sometimes crawling, sometimes scooting. Usually this occurs when they are learning and experimenting with new strategies.

Children don’t need examples to learn, they are very capable on their own. They will try and discover things like the small scientists they are.

Crawling is one of those things. They don’t need to see it, they discover it, realize it works better than what they had before, and start using it more and more until something better (like walking) comes along.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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