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DC Tidal Basin in peak bloom, 2021. Image: Miro Korenha
by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer
Both Kyoto, Japan, and Washington D.C. are known for their cherry blossom seasons in the first few weeks of warming spring weather. This year, cherry blossom season came early in both of these cities. In Kyoto, the blooms peaked last Friday, the earliest in more than 1,200 years of records. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C, the blossoms peaked on Sunday, four days ahead of the average date over the past 30 years and almost a week ahead of the 100-year average of April 3.
Why This Matters: These early blooms conform to a trend of earlier springs resulting from a warming planet (known as season creep). Japan started tracking cherry blossom season in 812, producing thousands of years of data. Cherry blossoms are very sensitive to changes in temperature, so having such a long record of peak blooms provides meaningful data about how the climate has changed over the past couple thousand years.
Dr. Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, told the Washington Post:“Evidence, like the timing of cherry blossoms, is one of the historical ‘proxy’ measurements that scientists look at to reconstruct past climate. In this case, that ‘proxy’ is telling us something that quantitative, rigorous long-term climate reconstructions have already told us — that the human-caused warming of the planet we’re witnessing today is unprecedented going back millennia.”
These earlier bloom dates might have environmental impacts. Having cherry blossoms peak in early March leaves the buds at risk of freezing if temperatures dip and can also disrupt the relationship blooming plants have with pollinators. This would make peak cherry blossom season quite short, according to Theresa Crimmins, director of the USA National Phenology Network, an organization that tracks the timing of the emergence of plant species. She told the Washington Post: “If the flower buds are frost-damaged, that is it for their flowering – and fruiting – for the year.”
She added: “Another key concern is that very early flowering can lead to mismatches in the presence of the open flowers and the presence of the pollinators dependent upon the flowers as a food source. Bees are a key pollinator for cherry trees, and if bees were not active at the time of the very early cherry flowering this past spring in Japan, the trees may have had poor pollination. In addition, those bees may be going hungry without the cherry flowers as a food resource when they do become active.”
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