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FILE PHOTO: Handler John Griffiths introduces Punxsutawney Phil to the crowd at Gobbler's Knob on the 131st Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, U.S. February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Alan Freed

(reuters_tickers)

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) - After record-breaking freezing temperatures across North America and an unusually powerful winter storm known as a "bomb cyclone," one critter's annual weather prediction might be the last hope for those itching for an early spring.

Thousands of revelers on Friday were expected to gather in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles (120 km)northeast of Pittsburgh, to witness a groundhog named "Phil" make his annual prediction on how long the North American winter will last.

Spectators at Gobblers Knob park can expect cloudy skies with cold temperatures near 17 degrees Fahrenheit (-8.3°C) early on Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). But the clouds should clear out by the time Phil appears shortly after sunrise, NWS forecaster Bob Oravec said on Thursday.

"I assume he's going to see his shadow in the morning," Oravec said.

According to legend, if the rodent emerges from his dwelling and sees his shadow, six more weeks of winter should be expected. But if Phil doesn't see his shadow, spring is in for an early arrival.

Groundhogs, portly rodents belonging to the squirrel family, have been offering weather predictions in the tiny town since 1887.

The annual Groundhog Day event, made more popular by the 1993 comedy film "Groundhog Day" starring Bill Murray, draws faithful followers from as far away as Australia and Russia. This year will be the 132nd ceremony.

Phil is not the only weather-predicting groundhog on the East Coast. His competitor, a groundhog named "Chuck," was also slated to make predictions in the New York City borough of Staten Island on Friday. He famously bit former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the ceremony in 2009.

Canada has had its own share of weather-forecasting mascots, including Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog who is also due to make his spring prediction on Friday in southern Ontario.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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Reuters