It’s noon in Saskatchewan on Groundhog Day 2011. The CBC radio announcer is listing the major highways that are designated as “travel not recommended.”
The announcer explains why. “Icy, subject to freezing, snow cover, blowing snow, poor visibility ya-da-ya-da-ya. Just stay home.”
And Saskatchewan hasn’t even had a blizzard this week. Unlike the 30 American states that are under storm advisories and most of eastern Canada, all Saskatchewan has to offer is rising temperatures and howling winds, the combination that produces windchill and icy roadways.
A Groundhog Day blizzard raged across the USA, bringing a wicked mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain. According to the National Weather Service, Michigan’s Groundhog Day blizzard was the strongest in a decade. The massive winter storm swept through 30 states, heading up into the US Northeast and Canada. Chicago closed schools – which never happens except, perhaps, when the city receives a 20.2 inches of snow with more in the forecast. With hundreds of vehicles in ditches, the National Weather Service had some simple advice. “Stay off the roads.” The height of the storm was timed perfectly for evening rush hour.
The storm tore through Toronto then hit Quebec hard, leaving behind 25 centimetres of moisture-laden hard, crystalized snow formed by the Texas storm and a three-kilometre-long, 70-car pile up. Roads were dangerously slippery. Environment Canada posts storm warnings for 25 or more centimetres of snow within a 24-hour period or when snowfall is combined with freezing rain, strong winds and extreme cold. They characterize blizzards mainly by strong winds that can reduce visibility to 400 metres or winds and four hours of falling snow. Ontario had its first blizzard warning in years.
The Groundhog Day storm, on Feb. 2, the exact midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, proved to be an auspicious time to ask weather-savvy North American Icelanders to answer two questions: How are North American Icelanders coping with the weather, and did the groundhog see his shadow in your area on Feb. 2?
Groundhog Day fans claim a 75% to 90% accuracy rate for their favourite furry rodents. A 40-year Canadian study puts the success rate level at 37%. The American National Climatic Data Center has set the the overall prediction accuracy rate at 39%. A 2008 study showed that two-legged meteorologists, in particular when doing long-range forecasts, couldn’t do any better.
Neither Punxsutawney Phil from Pennsylvania, Shubenacadie Sam from Nova Scotia, nor Wiarton Willie from Ontario saw their shadows, a sure sign that spring is on its way. On the other hand, the word from Chicago was that Woodstock Willie was holed up because of the bad weather and not about to emerge from his tree trunk home to make a prognostication.
He was in good company. Reporting from Regina, Saskatchewan’s Honorary Consul, Jón Orn Jonsson had this to say: “Whatever groundhogs there may be in Saskatchewan, they did not see their shadows for the very simple and sensible reason they had the good sense to remain cooped up in their warm lairs on their special day. They saw no sense breaking their hibernation to go outside in -40 degree weather, proving they are smarter than the presumed pinnacle of the evolutionary species. What this does in terms of the length or shortness of this most brutal of winters only Saskatchewan’s groundhogs know.”
On the other hand, Bill Valgardson, the L-H editor, took time out from editing his manuscript to report that “The groundhog definitely saw his shadow today. Beautiful blue sky.” Given that he had earlier reported that “the snowdrops are blooming in my garden,” his observation elicited a quick response: how would he be able to tell if winter was on or off?
It’s apparently all a matter of local word usage. “Winter is defined differently on Vancouver Island,” Bill explained. “One winter it rained every day for a month. I mean rained. Low clouds. No sun. I was ready to drive to Alberta just to see blue sky. By the end of the second week, saying you don’t have to shovel it didn’t do much to help my mood.” And this year, “It has been a wet winter but not the bitter cold winter predicted. I hiked the chip trip trail around the Cedar Hill golf course last weekend, then a couple of days later, around Swan Lake. The bushes are starting to put out their leaves. My last trip in from Salt Spring, the fog was so thick that I couldn’t see beyond the edge of the road. That happens when it is very wet and the temperature goes up a bit. Even when it clears at ground level there is lots of fog up higher on the ridges. On the trip to Swartz Bay, I couldn’t see the front of the ferry and the foghorn went steadily. The weather is great for hiking or jogging but you want to keep moving, not to stay warm but to keep the moss from starting to grow on your clothes.”
Incidentally, snow drops, also known as Fair-Maids-in-February or Candlemas Bells, are considered a sign of hope.
And hope was alive in Sudbury, ON on the eve of Groundhog Day, according Don Young. “Optimism abounds in Sudbury today,” he reported on Feb. 1. “Clear blue sky and only -12C as I write this. Chance of flurries tomorrow a.m. and a high of -11C. Since, unlike in B.C., roses are hard to find outside in Sudbury at the moment, Don sent photos of their ‘Snow Loops’ that form hanging from the grill work over our side deck. “Happens every winter. The snow gradually rotates from building up and standing on top of the 4x4s to hanging like a big snow scarf between the 2x4s. One of the loops looks like cross between an albino Duck-Billed Platypus and a Mallard. Whatever it is, its eye is on the camera. The big loop in the second photo is hanging between the 4x4s at 90 degrees to the other loops and we think this is the first time in 20 years we have seen that happen. So, could we reply in the category: “Admiring our bloomin’ snowdrips”?
Rose Sveinbjornson reported using more traditional flowers as a winter-survival aid in Churchbridge, SK. “Who says you have to be south to enjoy the flowers? At this time of the year we do have the time to enjoy the blossoms.” She photographed her amaryllis in the window with a background of snow.
But how define winter? Rob Olafson from Bellingham, WA asked: “Some of us are living in the balmy zone (comparatively speaking). Do you still want to hear from us, or does that add insult to frozen injury?”
Apparently he doesn’t know how much fun frozen can be. Bernice Andersen provided a warming photo of coffee break, a cozy moment at Markerville Creamery. “Temperature was -35C last night,’ she reported.
Still, Tom, Icelanders of Victoria chose to protect his identify before he wrote: “It’s a beautiful sunny day here in Victoria, BC, with shadows stretching out over the green bulbs as they push up out of the ground. At 5 degrees
it’s a little warmer than usual for the time of year, and overnight it will probably be zero.”
No sunshine for the Ancaster, ON groundhog. “Heavily blowing snow, near blizzard conditions,” reported Holly Ralph.
However, Ileen Joan Peterson wrote: “Here in western Washington, south of Tacoma, the sky is clear blue, the snow on Mt. Rainier is sparkling white, the temperature is a crisp 41 F and similar weather is expected for Feb. 2. Of course, my cousin who just flew from Cairo to Rome will be delayed getting back to the States because of the air traffic cancellations. The weather expected in the middle of the continent reminds me of “the children’s blizzard” of 1882. This prompted the establishment of the US weather service. As far as we know, all our Minnesota Icelandic relatives survived that blizzard.”
How to survive winter? Her Icelandic horses thrive on it, said Susan Bunge. So does her entire family. “We have a farm just outside Ottawa where the kids love to be. Taffy – maple syrup boiled then poured into the snow and ‘pulled’ until it cools. We use a wood stove during the winter to save on oil heating/ electrical heating. We also make sure clothing is warm and cosy. The ‘Toque’/ hat is an unofficial national symbol.
Sometimes, beauty serves as an antidote. David A. Ashby reported: “February 2, 2011 in Utah is a beautiful sunny day. However, the temperature this morning was 0 Fahrenheit. The forecast high is 22 Fahrenheit. We have had high winds for the past few days which have cleared out our not-so-pleasant smog and temperature inversions. The average high for this time of year in Utah is 46 Fahrenheit with an average low of 23 Fahrenheit. Because we have some of the most incredible mountain terrain anywhere, we get amazing winter snowstorms. This year here in Utah we have had a lot of snow, somewhere around 120% of normal. These storms fill our lakes, rivers and reservoirs, allowing Utahans and visitors to live, work and play here. Last week my wife, Bonnie and I went to Midway, Utah and visited the man-made Ice-Castles.”
INL of NA President, Gail Einarson-McCleery,simply avoided the situation. “One would expect that I would be in Toronto in the middle of a snowstorm on Groundhog Day,” she wrote. “I hear from my tenant that it has been snowing and snowing and snowing. But instead, I am in West Vancouver admiring green grass, budding trees and tulips. However, when Wiarton Willie emerged this morning, the sun was shining, so I guess we are due for some more winter weather. We haven’t had much since I’ve been here, but we have had a lot of rain, drizzle and spitting rain. However, it beats shovelling Sometimes, beauty serves as an antidote. David A. Ashby reported: “February 2, 2011 in Utah is a beautiful sunny day. However, the temperature this morning was 0 Fahrenheit. The forecast high is 22 Fahrenheit. We have had high winds for the past few days which have cleared out our not-so-pleasant smog and temperature inversions. The average high for this time of year in Utah is 46 Fahrenheit with an average low of 23 Fahren heit. Because we have some of the most incredible mountain terrain anywhere, we get amazing winter snowstorms. This year here in Utah we have had a lot of snow, somewhere around 120% of normal. These storms fill our lakes, rivers and reservoirs, allowing Utahans and visitors to live, work and play here. Last week my wife, Bonnie and I went to Midway, Utah and visited the man-made Ice-Castles.”
INL of NA President, Gail Einarson-McCleery,simply avoided the situation. “One would expect that I would be in Toronto in the middle of a snowstorm on Groundhog Day,” she wrote. “I hear from my tenant that it has been snowing and snowing and snowing. But instead, I am in West Vancouver admiring green grass, budding trees and tulips. However, when Wiarton Willie emerged this morning, the sun was shining, so I guess we are due for some more winter weather. We haven’t had much since I’ve been here, but we have had a lot of rain, drizzle and spitting rain. However, it beats shovelling snow. Hope it’s all gone when I get back.”
Bob Isleifson of Brandon, MB also reported a sunny day and a concern: “CLEAR AND COLD -40 WINDCHILL.
No idea what the extra six weeks of winter will do to the flood crisis they are predicting for this area.”
Oddur S. Karlsson moved to Toronto from Iceland. Iceland does not mark Groundhog Day although, Oddur says, the news usually carries a short review. For Oddur: “Today is February 2, and the Groundhogs say that spring is around the corner. Toronto had storm warnings overnight, expecting 40 km/h ... Iceland has also a storm warning on the south and west coast, expecting 70-80 km/h.
Reminds me of sideways(and up) snow, sleet, and rain, and the gusts that help the snow to get inside your coverall through the sleeves, and wherever there is a tiny little opening. That is really refreshing, but don’t use an umbrella. It would take you on a rough Mary Poppins journey.”
Holly Ralph thinks Ancaster needs a stand in for groundhogs. “One of our BMW motorcycle riders suggested last year that we upstage the furry rodent with a ritual that has more meaning for us. An airhead is an older BMW motorcycle, with an air-cooled engine instead of having a radiator and being water cooled. They can be a bit fussy to start in the cold. The week before Punxsutawney Phil is brought out to see his shadow, the club could roll an airhead out, point it north, and see if the engine would start before the battery was drained. If started, there would be less than six more weeks of winter. If it didn’t, winter would last much longer. We could also check to see if the kickstand cast a shadow. Needless to say, the potential for fun and publicity here is almost limitless.”
Bev Arason-Gaudet, President of the Icelandic Canadian Club of Edmonton also promotes a stand in. “Gordon caught a picture of a coyote in our crab apple tree,” she wrote. “He didn’t appear to see his shadow so I am predicting that the snow will be long gone before the INL of NA Convention here in April and I am hoping to see many Icelanders from all over North America and Iceland.”
So, this is what the survey proves. No single groundhog can prognosticate for the entire North American continent. Those of us reflecting on massive snowbanks stacked on super-soaked land don’t want a fast shot at spring.
But what about our ancestors and modern-day Icelanders? According to Kristjan Helgi Sveinsson from Akureyri: “Groundhog Day? We don´t have that creature in Iceland, but for centuries now we have had a forecast connected to the second day of February, which is Candle-Mass = Kyndilmessa in Icelandic. Icelanders were Catholic until 1550 and there is an old verse stating:
Ef í heiði sólin sest (sést)
á sjálfa Kyndilmessu.
Snjóa vænta máttu mest
maður upp frá þessu.
This translates as: “If the sun is shining in a clear sky (some put it – if the sun goes down in a clear sky) at Kyndilmessa/Groundhog Day, you may expect heavy snow ahead.” It really is the same meaning as with the Groundhog finding his shadow and going underground again.
This year, on Kyndilmessa/Groundhog Day, the sun did neither shine nor go down in clear sky, so it will be normal winter ahead all the way to First Summerday – around April 20.