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How Accurate Are Punxsutawney Phil's Forecasts?

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This morning at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, weather-predicting groundhog Phil saw his shadow, which means he's calling for six more weeks of winter-like conditions. Don't get too bummed, though—Phil's recent track record isn't that great on the national level.

The tradition started in 1887, and since then, the groundhog chosen to represent Phil has seen his shadow 101 times. There have only been 17 instances when he hasn't seen it. (There are nine years without any record of Phil's prediction).

The National Climatic Data Center tallied Phil's predictions since 1988. They then compared the average national temperatures in February and March for each year with those months' 20th century averages to see how well Punxsutawney Phil performed. Now, it's important to keep in mind the difference between weather and climate here. It is also important to remember that this is a magical groundhog we're talking about.

In 2014, Phil was right on the money. After he saw his shadow, the country endured the 37th coldest February on record (1.6°F below the 20th century average) and the 43rd coldest March (1.0°F below the 20th century average). Compared with his other predictions, however, it seems that Phil got lucky.

Between 1988 and 2013, Phil saw his shadow 17 times. After predicting six more weeks of winter for those years, there were 12 Februarys with above-average temperatures in the U.S. and 13 above-average Marches. Of the eight times he did not see his shadow, which portends an early spring, he fared better—there wound up being four below-average Februarys and one below-average March. (Check out the full table here.)

Phil has predicted 100% correctly in only five of the 26 years the National Climatic Data Center analyzed (1990, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2014). Other than in 2014, he only nailed the years in which he forecasted an early spring. Considering the contiguous United States just experienced its 18th consecutive year with an above-average annual temperature, Phil may be wise to play the numbers and always predict an early spring.

Then again, perhaps we expect too much from a marmot with no access to nationwide climate data.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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