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By Willoughby Mariano February 4, 2011

Metro Atlanta groundhog boasts more accuracy than Punxsutawney Phil

Politics, step aside. The Truth-O-Meter must address a matter of Southern pride.

The honor and reputation of our local groundhog General Beauregard Lee.

For three decades, the South’s most esteemed weather prognosticator has lived in the stout and lumpy shadow of Punxsutawney Phil.  

Phil makes the rounds yearly on the morning talk shows. He’s made appearances with Oprah Winfrey and President Ronald Reagan. His agent even scored him a gig with Bill Murray in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day."

On Wednesday, PolitiFact Georgia scribes rolled our eyes as the public fawned over Phil once again during Wednesday’s annual Groundhog Day celebration. Phil never saw his shadow, news accounts said. Spring will come early.

But should you really trust Phil? Beau’s website says our metro Atlanta celebrity is accurate 94 percent of the time. Phil’s record is a measly 85 percent, it said. That stat has been picked up by various news outlets.  

Does Beau really deserve second place to that Yankee glory hog?

PolitiFact Georgia decided to settle this matter once and for all.

For the scoop on Beau’s record, we talked to Art Rilling, CEO and founder of Lilburn’s Yellow River Game Ranch, an attraction featuring people-friendly wildlife northeast of Atlanta. Beau lives there in a plantation-style manse named "Weathering Heights." For the past 10 years, his staff has calculated the General’s accuracy by noting the number of days local temperatures hit the freezing mark during the six weeks after Feb. 2.

Beau, like Phil, predicted an early spring for 2011.

Sadly, Phil’s staff has not tracked their groundhog’s predictions so diligently. Their official stance is that their marmot is "incapable of error, so his accuracy rate is 100 percent," said Mike Johnston, vice president of the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.  

Wednesday was Punxsutawney’s 125th groundhog celebration. German settlers brought the tradition, which is based on ancient myths that say hedgehogs, which resemble groundhogs, have the power to predict the weather.

Phil’s predictions are not site-specific. If he says that spring will come early, it will, Johnston said. Somewhere.

When Phil’s really wrong, Johnston added, it’s the fault of poor Groundhogeese-to-English translation.

"People complain and tell us we’re just making it up as we go along," Johnston said, "but after 125 years of doing it, we don’t need to."

Before we go further, the staff of PolitiFact Georgia feels obliged to mention that meteorologists have officially determined that groundhogs cannot predict the weather.

Really. A tongue-in-cheek analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center concluded groundhogs show "no predictive skill." (Why do this? To help get kids interested in the science of weather.)

Or, more bluntly, "you can’t take any stock in a groundhog predicting the weather," said Tom Ross, a meteorologist who helped put together the NCDC’s report.  It showed that between 1988 and 2010, Phil gave accurate national weather predictions 10 times out of 23 for a rate of 43 percent.

True, but that won’t stop us. Our groundhog’s honor is at stake.

Since the keepers of Beau and Phil do not keep comparable statistics, we performed an independent analysis using the NCDC study and National Weather Service data for 2001 through 2010.

We defined "early spring" as a February with above-average temperatures. We then compared each groundhog’s prediction with temperatures nationally and in his respective hometown.

The NWS does not keep average February temperatures for the hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pa., so a kindly meteorologist gave us figures for Putneyville, Pa., a town at a similar elevation about 15 miles away.

We found that the General predicted whether spring will start early nationally with 60 percent accuracy. Phil’s rate was 30 percent.

Beau predicted Atlanta weather with 50 percent accuracy. Phil got Punxsutawney’s right 40 percent of the time.

By our analysis, Beau’s staff overestimated his success, but he’s still 10 to 30 percentage points ahead of Phil. Georgia’s underhog is the champion, paws down.  

General, emerge from the shadows. Stand tall on your stubby legs.

The Truth-O-Meter salutes you with a Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Yellow River Game Ranch website, "Beau's Bio ... and more than you ever wanted to know about Groundhog Day!," accessed Feb. 2, 2011

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Climatic Data Center, "Groundhog Day," accessed Feb. 2, 2011

Interview, Tom Ross, meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Climatic Data Center, Feb. 2, 2011

Interview, Art Rilling, chief executive officer, Yellow River Game Ranch, Feb. 2, 2011

National Weather Service data for Atlanta, February 2001-2010, obtained Feb. 2, 2011

National Weather Service data for Putneyville, Pa., February 2001-2010, obtained Feb. 2, 2011

Travel Channel website, "The Appeal of Groundhog Day," accessed Feb. 2, 2011

The Pennsylvania Center for the Book, "Forecasting Phil," Spring 2008

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Metro Atlanta groundhog boasts more accuracy than Punxsutawney Phil

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