It can’t be easy to be a meteorologist as Groundhog Day approaches. Here you spend a large chunk of your life pouring over computer models and maps hoping to figure out what the next six hours are going to bring in terms of weather, and then once a year a groundhog — Marmota monax, to be precise, a pear-shaped ground squirrel in serious need of pilates — cavalierly tells the country what the six weeks of weather will be like. And he does it without a degree in meteorology or even one of those spectacularly cool weather walls the TV forecasters use. No green screen, no computer graphics. The critter rests his entire judgment on his shadow. If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow when he emerges from his burrow in Gobbler’s Knob, we have six more weeks of wintery weather; if not, it will be an early spring. I know I would have a chip on my shoulder the size of a Mini Cooper if I were a meteorologist and a freaking rodent got all that attention and all that credit for doing absolutely no work.
“I think Punxsutawney Phil even gets better makeup than we do,” rues Tom Messner, the chief meteorologist at WPTZ, the NBC affiliate in Burlington and Plattsburgh, and a weather forecaster since 1987. “He always looks so good when he is pulled out of his burrow.”
Indeed, when was the last time that Messner was surrounded by nearly two dozen men in top hats and tuxedoes when he offered a forecast? Answer: Never. And yet Messner is an infinitely better sport than I would be about the hoopla that surrounds a groundhog in Punxsutawney, Penn.: “I think Groundhog Day is a riot. I love to watch it, I like the guys in the big hats. It’s all fun.”
Part of Messner’s tolerance is constitutional and, apparently, endemic to the profession. There simply aren’t a lot of cranky meteorologists in this world — a reality that’s a big part of the reason why the 1993 Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day,” is such a hoot. Murray plays a meteorologist who is snarky, sarcastic, and condescending. “Meteorologists are often the nicest people in the newsroom,” Messner says. “You’re talking about a group of people studying something they love: the weather. And meteorologists get to be themselves on TV. We’re not reading the teleprompter, we’re being ourselves.”
He also notes that it’s the news anchors who have to report the truly bad news. He doesn’t. “If the worst thing I have to tell people is that we’re going to get a foot of snow, that’s not so bad,” he says. Even six more weeks of wintery weather on Feb. 2 isn’t especially troubling here in northern Vermont and upstate New York. Given the nature of global climate change, the notion of an early spring is far more ominous.
But Messner does take his job extremely seriously and it’s clear that he worries far more about his forecasts than the groundhog ever does: “Sometimes you agonize over snowstorms and the models. When I forecast a storm, I’m often out there in the middle of the night. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is look out the window.” After all, the weather affects everyone and people often schedule their lives around it. “If the forecast is a bust, you think twice before going out. Grocery stores can be really rough,” he admits. In other words, people cut the groundhog a lot more slack than they cut him.
And yet despite the excitement that envelopes Punxsutawney Phil annually, Messner has some collegial advice for the furball with claws: “Smile. That’s what everybody remembers. As time goes by, the forecasts are forgotten but not the attitude on TV.”
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 1, 2009.)