NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 8, 2013

Misplaced faith in a woodchuck


Newburyport Daily News

---- — Punxsutawney Phil, you deceitful rodent.

You saw no shadow when you emerged from your burrow on Gobbler’s Knob on Saturday. That means, supposedly, an early end to winter and an early spring. Though this winter has been relatively mild in terms of snowfall to this point, it has been bitterly cold and windy on too many days, so we welcomed the news.

But now comes word that by this time tomorrow, the first flakes of snow will be falling in what could be a blizzard of historic proportions. We may get, according to weather forecasters with access to more technology than a Pennsylvanian woodchuck, one to two feet of snow. Yes, that’s feet, not inches.

And this storm comes at a fateful time for New Englanders — within a day of the 35th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’78, a storm so awesome and powerful that old-timers still speak of it in hushed and reverential tones. The great storm was so mighty that it imposed a unique moment of calm on the chaos that is Route 128 — by burying miles of cars and trucks and rendering them immobile.

The Blizzard of ’78 remains the benchmark for great storms. Any major snowfall gets compared to it. All fall short.

The weather wizards tell us this one could give ’78 a run for its money. That will take some doing.

The great storm of Feb. 6-7, 1978, dropped two feet of snow on the Merrimack Valley with somewhat lesser amounts in Southern New Hampshire. The snow jackpot fell south of Boston, with some communities getting three feet. Hurricane-force winds lifted the snow into massive drifts — some 3,000 cars and 500 trucks were stranded on Route 128. The heavy winds pushed the sea into the streets of coastal communities. The damage estimate was $520 million in 1978 dollars, the equivalent of $1.8 billion today. Worst of all, about 100 people died as a result of the blizzard.

We have been skeptical of Phil’s prognosticating prowess in the past. More often than not, the skittery rodent sees his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter. But statistics show that spring arrives early about half the time. Last year, the groundhog was dead wrong, as a warm spring arrived in March despite his gloomy forecast.

Perhaps we can rationalize away our disappointment in Punxsutawney Phil. Why, he may be right after all. He did predict an early end to winter — but surely he didn’t mean within the next week. Perhaps spring will come early — but not before winter gets in a few good licks.

So, batten down the hatches, we’re in for a blow. And as the wind whistles through the wires Friday night and the snow piles ever higher, think of pampered Punxsutawney Phil, back snug in his burrow, his work complete for another year. And pray that he was right.

We believe in Phil, not on the basis of any scientific evidence but because, when the snow falls and the wind howls, we must.