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Be wary of groundhog predictions: Forecasters

TORONTO - Canadians weary of wild winter weather will be looking to groundhogs for a ray of hope on Sunday morning. But regardless of what the rodents say, human meteorologists have one clear message: don't get your hopes up.

Legend dictates that groundhogs emerging from their dens on Feb. 2 can offer a long-range forecast based on whether they catch a glimpse of their shadows.

If Ontario's Wiarton Willie, Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam or Manitoba's Winnipeg Willow see their shadows, our unseasonably cold winter is expected to drag on for another six weeks. If they don't, spring is said to be just around the corner.

Meteorologists from across the country, however, say their models point to only one outcome. Any furry forecasts for an early spring fly in the face of what the data and trends are showing.

Environment Canada says the frigid temperatures that have gripped much of the country throughout December and January will likely persist through February. Even provinces that have enjoyed unseasonably warm temperatures, such as British Columbia and parts of Alberta, are expected to feel the chill in the coming weeks.

Senior climatologist David Phillips said Canadians could be forgiven for seeking hope from a groundhog, since much of the country has been enduring near-historic low temperatures for months.

"I wish there was always a certain allotment of winter days. If that was the case, we would have used them all up and we'd be nicely coasting towards a warmer than normal spring," Phillips said in a telephone interview. "Well, that's not the case. This looks like a continuation of what we've seen for several weeks now."

Phillips said icy conditions have prevailed from Saskatchewan to all points east since December, with the worst of the arctic conditions centred over Ontario and parts of Quebec.

Chris Scott, Chief Meteorologist with the Weather Network, said many of those regions have also had to contend with particularly extreme weather.

Ice storms and heavy snowfalls have made their mark on Quebec and Ontario, while wildly fluctuating temperatures across the Maritimes have made for very unsettled conditions.

"What we've seen is a lot of storms," Scott said. "We get our big nor’easters that have been coming in, and that means we've been walloped, frankly, with a lot of very active weather regardless of what community you're in in Atlantic Canada."

Scott said Ontario has been hit particularly hard. On eight occasions in January, he said daytime highs in Toronto failed to move above -10 Celsius, an unusual occurrence for a city known for more temperate conditions.

On the other end of the spectrum was Calgary, where temperatures topped seven degrees Celsius on at least 10 days last month. British Columbia has also been basking in abnormally warm conditions, which have kept the province from registering the heavy snowfalls typical of this time of year.

But both Scott and Phillips agreed that regions spared the wrath of Jack Frost will run out of luck in February, predicting arctic weather will envelop the country from coast to coast.

Phillips said Environment Canada's long-range models predict the deep freeze will hold on through parts of March as well.

"It's something we haven't seen in years. Two years ago we cancelled winter. Last year it turned out to be a warmer than normal winter. It's something of a winter . . . that our grandparents used to talk about. I think that's what has surprised many Canadians," he said.

If Canada's groundhogs do wind up predicting a late spring, Scott said Canadians can look to the sky for short-term relief.

"If you're in the car on a sunny day, you can really feel the sun's energy being a bit stronger," he said. "It's getting higher in the sky, so we know spring is on the way eventually."

If the prognosticating rodents do call for a quick end to winter, however, Scott urges Canadians to take their findings with a grain of salt.

"I think we're being overly optimistic when we look at the groundhog and say, 'please, give us a sign of spring.' We don't see that on the horizon."

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