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So How Did Prairie Dog Pete’s Prediction Hold Up?

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Texas seems to have gotten its butt kicked by winter this year. Just last week, North Texas saw a record snowfall (in March!), accumulation the area hasn’t experienced “in the month of March since March 7, 1947,” noted CBS. In February, seven inches piled up in Grapevine and there were 3.5 inches at DFW, which also saw 800 flights canceled in a single day. Towns just east of Amarillo saw six inches of snow, while nasty winter weather caused a massive pileup in the city. Poor Lubbock had only one snow plow to scrape away about four to six inches of the white stuff.

It’s hard (okay, impossible) to blame the weather on anyone, but Texas does have one plausible scapegoat for all this: Prairie Dog Pete. The little critter has been Lubbock’s mascot for more than seventy years, shortly after “Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy N. Clapp established the first protected prairie dog colony right in the middle of Mackenzie Park in the northeast part of the city,” in 1936, according to the lovely history “Our Comic Friend the Prairie Dog and the Story of Prairie Dog Town, Texas!” written in 1976. Nancy Neill, of Lubbock Parks and Recreation, said the city doesn’t have any sort of formal celebration for Pete’s annual weather prophesy. Rather, the announcement of the annual divination is thanks almost entirely to reporters for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, which noted this year that Neill remembers “the city holding Groundhog Day events with Prairie Dog Pete decades ago in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

On February 2, per his annual tradition, Lubbock’s Prairie Dog Pete “emerged from his burrow . . . to see his shadow at MacKenzie Park’s Prairie Dog Town.” Like his more famous brother, Punxsutawney Phil, the shadow sighting is a sign of six more weeks of winter for Texas. We’ve only got a couple more days left of that six weeks, but based on all the evidence, it would seem the little miscreant was right.

Or was he? This is the Internet, after all, where nothing is taken at face value.

For those so inclined, Weather Underground has an easy-to-use data archive program that allows you to see basic weather stats for every year, month, week, and day going back five-plus decades. (It’s actually kinda fun once you get into it.) Assuming Pete’s predictions mostly concern the weather of Lubbock, his recent six-week hex certainly held up this year, which saw the most snow depth (four inches) of the past five years. But how has Prairie Dog Pete fared over the years? I looked up as many of his reported predictions as I could find. (If the Avalanche-Journal did find his revelations to be newsworthy every year, it would seem they didn’t think them fit enough to put them all online, though I did track down 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2013, and 2015.) Here are some February weather figures for those years, combined:

Average mean temperature: 44 degrees.
Average high: 78.5 degrees.
Average low: 18.375 degrees.
Average snow depth: 1.6 inches.

In only three of those years—2005, 2006, 2013did Pete predict an early spring, which is another way of saying those were the only years that it wasn’t cloudy on that particular day. February 1998 actually saw a high of 81 degrees, and 1998 and 2001 both saw a snow depth of zero inches, while the “early spring” years of 2005 and 2013 both had February snow depths of one to two inches. While 2015 really was a big year for snow, it also saw the highest February temperature of these prophesied years, at 84 degrees. (The previous ten-year high was 89 degrees in 2006, another early spring year.)

I’m cherry-picking, of course, because Prairie Dog Pete is an herbivorous rodent and can’t complain in the comments section. If he were to be graded on a curve, Pete would probably fare no worse than your average weatherman. Part of the reason is that that area’s weather is fairly consistent, and the small differences are insignificant over a long period of time (isn’t everything?).

There is a larger problem, obviously, with saying Prairie Dog Pete got his prediction right or wrong. Surprisingly, it has less to do with the fact that we’re talking about an animal as weatherman and more with the fact that there’s actually no scientific definition of “winter.” Or “six more weeks” of such. And it’s not just a matter of when we can put up the heavy coats or how many canceled school days. Science doesn’t really have such a definition. I know because I asked the professionals.

“I’m not sure how that’s defined,” said Gary at the National Weather Service’s Lubbock office. “You’ll probably have to look into what Prairie Dog Pete says, or any of the other ones.” He sounded half-amused, half-I-can’t-believe-I’m-having-this-conversation. Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s official climatologist, was more clear about the meaninglessness of “six more weeks of winter.”

“That’s the kicker,” said Nielsen-Gammon, “to making a forecast when it’s unverifiable.” He continued:

In fact, there’s no intrinsic definition for the “winter season.” Astronomically, it’s from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox, but actually the United States is a minority in following that definition of winter. … We follow the astronomical calender, so winter actually starts in the middle of winter. Meteorologically, it’s generally December through February, and there are other definitions available. …

The definition Nielsen-Gammon is referring to includes the “Meteorological Winter,” which begins on December 1 and ends on February 28. So good news: meteorologically speaking, spring is already here! According to astronomers and calender makers, of course, the first official day of spring is March 20. But that’s not even set in stone either: it was changed from March 21 in 2004, since “the vernal equinox landed on March 21 only 36 out of 100 years.” If you want to go by other definitions, the Gaelic calender considers winter (Geimhreadh) to be November through January. According to the Mayan calendar, winter is of no concern since the End of Time has already come.

Less might be said of other weatherman, who seem to have the same hit-miss ratio as Prairie Dog Pete. Just a few weeks ago, when Pete came out and saw his shadow, the Avalanche-Journal said the National Weather Service predicted “a warm week” for Lubbock, “with temperatures up 71 degrees by Friday.” Come Friday, the maximum temperature was 66 degrees, and the following week, the mean temperature hovered in the 40s and low 50s. But hey, nobody’s perfect. Especially not Pete.

Follow Jeff Winkler on Twitter.

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