By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
If you are a follower of Groundhog Day Punxsutawney Phil, six more weeks of winter are in store, according to his 2021 prediction. The tradition says if the groundhog sees his shadow, he retreats and hides, thus leading to the additional six weeks.
This year’s ceremony, held as usual at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., was closed to spectators because of the pandemic, but was streamed online and seen by more than 180,000 viewers by early afternoon. So apparently there is a following for this annual “forecast.”
Why Rely on an Animal?
Many think relying on a rodent, instead of science, to predict the future is a waste of time. As a result, this annual event is more a humorous tradition and is barely a footnote in most news broadcasts and media reports.
But if you look at climatology or the snowfall records over the past 100 years, the groundhog tends to be correct the majority of the time! In addition, weather trends are showing that winters are becoming noticeably shorter with less snowfall.
La Nina Means More Snow for the US
In fact, meteorologists agreed with Punxsutawney Phil’s 2021 Groundhog Day prediction. While the first major blasts of winter arrived later than normal, snow and cold temperatures may continue well into spring in some regions due to La Nina.
La Nina is a phase during which the Pacific Ocean water near the equator is cooler than normal. That, in turn, affects the atmosphere and could create an actively severe weather season and more measurable snow in the northern U.S.
The Next Winter Event
The subzero temperatures from the northern Rockies and the Great Lakes to parts of the Plains and Midwest could reach 40 degrees below normal, with wind chills making the temperature outside feel like minus 30 degrees. That’s a chilling statistic, even for the most enthusiastic outdoors people.
The Arctic Blast
While snow in winter is commonplace in the United States, two major snowstorms in one week is a rarity in the northeastern United States, which was bracing for its second major snowstorm in a week. An additional four to nine inches of heavy snow fell over the weekend in places from Georgia to New England.
Weather and the Economy
It is estimated that the weather directly affects nearly 20% of the U.S. economy, including agriculture, energy, entertainment, construction, and travel. So one single winter weather event can be problematic for outdoor events, schools, airports and coronavirus vaccination sites.
In addition, natural gas prices are directly related to winter weather, with a longer winter pushing up rates as usage for heating increases. Likewise, a short winter can leave large unused reserves of natural gas.
The Weather Trends
There was a record number of weather-related disasters last year, ranging from the most hurricanes on record in a single season, to some of the worst wildfires in the West, to the fifth warmest year on record. An unprecedented 11 hurricanes made landfall; of those, seven caused damage exceeding $1 billion. Compare this to 2018 and 2019, when an unusually wet and prolonged rainy season resulted in devastating torrential floods.
So the point is, regardless of whether your go-to weather tool is a groundhog, the Farmer’s Almanac, or a meteorological forecast, weather extremes are becoming more frequent and more dangerous.