A member of the Groundhog Club's Inner Circle holding up Punxsutawney Phil in the air at a groundhog day ceremony.
Image credit: Chris Flook on wikimedia.com

On February 2, 2024—known as Groundhog Day in the United States—the Pennsylvania groundhog called Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow. According to legend, that means winter is on the way out.

“We all just want the promise of spring,” wrote NPR in a story about the celebration, where thousands gather annually in the small town of Punxsutawney in the early morning to watch the rodent make his prediction. If the groundhog sees a shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, spring is coming.

But is it an early spring or is it climate change?

As the climate warms up and the weather turns more severe, places around the globe must cope with different, confusing patterns: springlike temperatures in winter, tornados in locations that never had them before, and devastating floods happening more frequently. As climate change intensifies, what does this mean for traditional celebrations that bring communities together? And how are nonprofits and other groups that host seasonal events handling the cancellations of festivities, which often serve as big fundraising opportunities?

Unseasonably Warm Winters

In early February, a tornado touched down near Madison, WI—a state that, until then, never experienced a February tornado. Days before the unprecedented event, warm weather disrupted a long list of planned seasonal festivities, many of them fundraising opportunities, like a youth ice fishing derby. Thin ice forced the cancellation of the annual Winter Carnival from the University of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Union, a longtime local tradition.

For many organizations and communities, the loss of seasonal events also means a loss of income.

“Outdoor events, such as multiple days of ice skating, the ice fishing derby, a pond hockey tournament and winter fireworks are the latest casualties of springlike temperatures,” wrote the Wisconsin State Journal, noting that temperatures were expected to be in the 50s.

Most places in the United States did not have a white Christmas last year, as it was too warm for snow: “Christmas Eve will be a far cry from a winter wonderland,” NBC News wrote in December 2023. This prompted the cancellation of other winter carnivals, Christmas markets, and charity ski tournaments.

As late as February the following year, multiple ski resorts in typically snowy northern Ohio had to delay their opening days or suspend operations after their snow melted. With the springlike temperatures, it wasn’t cold enough even for artificial snow machines to work. The slopes remained bare and dry.

Losing Traditions Means Losing Money

For many organizations and communities, the loss of seasonal events also means a loss of income. “Will Tube for Food,” a popular winter tubing night held at the ski and tubing resort Snow Trails in Mansfield, OH, was canceled this year. The annual event has been happening for 17 years, usually raising several thousand dollars and collecting boxes of nonperishable food and toiletry items for the mental health nonprofit Catalyst Life Services.

“If there’s no event, there’s no money raised, or at least a lot less.”But in January 2024, there wasn’t enough snow on the ground for the tubes to run.

In 2020, COVID-19 hit nonprofits hard. Due to health and safety concerns, most charity functions were canceled. So, too, was the summer fundraising season, a popular time to host income-generating outdoor functions. “Summer fundraising is usually all about getting outside, getting into your community, and mingling with your donors. But COVID-19 has changed everything,” Mightycause wrote in 2020.

NPQ reported at the end of that year about the income losses faced by nonprofit organizations: “The double hit for many arts organizations, for instance, is the inability to host congregate activities due to COVID…on top of the economic downturn.”

Billboard noted at least one musical performance last year was canceled because it was too hot for the band’s equipment to even turn on.

Now, many seasonal events and fundraising opportunities are in jeopardy again—and because severe weather can strike at any time in the age of climate change, it’s an ongoing threat. “What does rain mean for the charity?” Golf wrote about the risk inclement weather poses to charity golf outings. “If there’s no event, there’s no money raised, or at least a lot less.”

In 2023, Billboard ran a full list of the music festivals and concerts impacted by climate change, including performances or festivals raising money for charitable causes, like New York City’s Governor’s Ball. Intense weather affected attendees and performers alike, from evacuations due to lightning, hail, or flash floods, to wildfire smoke and severe heat.

Billboard noted at least one musical performance last year was canceled because it was too hot for the band’s equipment to even turn on. “Fans, meanwhile, have been forced to evacuate to tents, cars and venue bathrooms amidst storms, and risked overheating.”

Seasonal Traditions Are a Promise

Not only do seasonal events raise money, but they also boost spirits and build community. How many block parties were canceled in the heat waves of 2023? How many neighbors did not come out of their houses to socialize on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July because it was simply too hot to be outside?

Great Lakes Now described 2024 as “Michigan’s lost winter.” Less than 24 hours before the Black Lake sturgeon spearing season was to open in Black Lake, MI, the season was canceled. This wasthe latest in a series of disappointments for winter recreationalists, as the one-two punch of El Niño and climate change have caused one of the warmest Michigan winters in history,” according to the outlet.

Such cancellations can have a trickle-down impact on local economies. In Michigan’s case, the sturgeon brings anglers from far and wide into the community of Black Lake. This February, as DNR Fisheries Chief Randy Claramunt said, “Some people will have canceled their motel reservations. There won’t be as many people here to eat in our local restaurants.”Other Michigan seasonal celebrations suspended this year due to unusually warm weather include snowmobile festivals, ski races, and a famous dogsled race.

When our seasons disappear, what happens to our traditions? In 2020, Forbes asked a similar question in the headline of an article: “Who Needs A Groundhog When Climate Change Practically Guarantees An Early Spring?”

We all need something to look forward to, something to mark the days, and, in the case of events like the Groundhog Day celebration in Pennsylvania, something to bring people together. Thousands gathered on Gobbler’s Knob beginning before dawn, meeting strangers, sharing hot drinks, and cheering on a plump rodent. Marking the midpoint of the winter season in some way is a tradition that dates “back to ancient Celtic times,” according to NPR.

After all, it’s not just warm weather we look forward to—weather that may already be quite warm due to the impacts of climate change—but the longer, brighter days ahead. By noting such a seasonal event like Groundhog Day, as NPR wrote, “we’re celebrating the return of the light.”

Celebrating seasons is also celebrating our endurance: to keep going, to outlast dark days, both figuratively and literally, and no skill is more essential for dealing with the climate crisis than resilience. And now, adaptiveness. Will we develop new holidays, new traditions for our shifting world?