PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - As a huge winter storm paralyzed much of the United States with snow, ice and freezing rain, America's most famous groundhog predicted on Wednesday that spring isn't far away.
Punxsutawney Phil emerged from a tree stump at dawn and, unusually, did not see his shadow, signaling that spring is just around the corner, according to tradition.
"He found that there was no shadow," said Bill Deeley, president of a club that organizes Groundhog Day in the western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney. "So an early spring it will be."
The rodent's "prognostication" each February 2 is an annual tradition that was brought to the United States by German immigrants, and is now watched by thousands of people who trek to a hillside called Gobbler's Knob each year to witness the ceremony.
If the groundhog is judged to see its shadow, tradition holds that there will be six more weeks of winter.
Phil last made a prediction of an early spring in 2007 and foretells an early end to winter on average only once every 10 years, said Mike Johnston, vice president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, or board of directors.
"It's very unusual," he said.
Johnston said the latest prognostication will be entirely accurate, and does not reflect any desire on Phil's part to cheer up Americans who are suffering through a grueling winter.
"There is no question that Phil is capable of feeling empathy," Johnston said in an interview. "But he is absolutely incapable of error."
The rodent's predictions are "not burdened by being site-specific" and so can be sure to predict an early spring in some part of the world, Johnston added.
An estimated 5,000 people, or only about half the usual number, watched the 125th edition of the groundhog ceremony on site at Punxsutawney despite snow, sleet and freezing rain. The event was streamed live on the Internet.
The weather limited the size of the crowd this year. As many as 40,000 people have previously braved freezing temperatures and sleep deprivation to witness the event, which is replicated on a smaller scale by other groundhog ceremonies elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.
The popularity of Groundhog Day got a big boost by a 1993 film of the same name, according to Johnston.
While western Pennsylvania was spared the worst of the storm, many central and northern areas of the U.S. were hit by snow and ice that closed roads, shut down businesses, and grounded flights.
But the Punxsutawney crowd, which started arriving on Gobbler's Knob at 3 a.m., braved some of the worst weather in the last 20 years of Groundhog Day, said Johnston.
"It was an absolute disaster weather-wise," Johnston said after the ceremony.