Japan's Cherry Blossoms Hit Earliest Peak Bloom in 1,200 Years

Climate change's warming temperatures may be playing a part, experts say.

Cherry Blossoms Bloom In Tokyo
Visitors photograph cherry blossoms in Tokyo. Yuichi Yamazaki / Getty Images

Japan’s famous cherry blossoms have already hit peak bloom in much of the country, in one of the earliest blossomings on record. Experts suggest climate change may play a part.

The famous white and pink flowers — also known as sakura — only bloom briefly. Visitors flock to the cloud-like puffs of blooms for viewing parties and photographs. The famous trees have been immortalized in paintings and stories throughout history.

Typically, the cherry blossoms (Prunus jamasakura) reach peak bloom in April. But this year, peak bloom was reached on March 26 in the capital of Kyoto, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. That’s four days earlier than last year and 10 days earlier than normal.

Other locations also had similar early bursts. Peak bloom in Sendai was March 31 which was three days earlier than last year and 16 days earlier than normal. Peak bloom was 12 days earlier than last year in Nagao which was also 16 days earlier than normal. And the peak bloom in Tokyo was March 22, which was the same as last year but still 12 days earlier than normal.

Yasuyuki Aono, a researcher at Osaka Prefecture University, sifted through cherry tree flowering data from Kyoto dating back to 812 AD. He writes that he looked at diaries and chronicles written by emperors, aristocrats, governors, and monks throughout history.

Although he wasn’t able to account for the peak bloom in every year, Aono found that this year’s March 26 was the earliest in 1,200 years.

"The weather during the end of winter and beginning of spring can play a major factor since the timing of the blooms relies on the conditions of the environment," Maura Kelly, a meteorologist at AccuWeather, tells Treehugger.

"An abnormally cold winter or below-normal temperatures during the beginning of spring can delay blooming. The opposite was the case this year, with above-normal temperatures recorded in Kyoto during February and March."

Kelly says the average temperature in Kyoto in February was about 4.6 F higher than average. In March, the average temperature was about 5.8 degrees F higher than normal.

"The average temperatures for February and March in Kyoto are 47 and 54 degrees F, respectively. The ground was able to thaw out and warm up faster in these warmer conditions, allowing for the trees to reach the earliest peak bloom in the last 1,200 years," she says.

"According to a paper published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, the local increase in temperature credited with the earlier blossoming is associated with urbanization as well as climate change."

Climate and Blooms

The Japan Meteorological Agency tracks the movement of sakura as it blooms, moving northward through the island. The status page is updated three times daily December through June. As of this writing, the tracker shows that most locations have blooms from three to 16 days earlier than normal.

Climate scientists are constantly studying the connection between warming temperatures and seasonal changes, known as phenology. Changes and events are supposed to happen at a certain time, in a certain order ... like specific flowers and trees blooming or animals being born. But warming temperatures are interfering with those events throughout the world.

"The National Climate Assessment provides evidence that the length of the growing season for plants, crops, and trees is lengthening in the U.S. due to climate change," Kevin A. Reed, associate professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, tells Treehugger.

"This is in part because the date in which the last frost (when temperatures are below 32 deg. F) has been shifting earlier and earlier in the spring, including in areas along the East Coast where cherry blossom blooming season is a major attraction." 

And in Japan, warming likely effects the cherry trees.

"We can say it's most likely because of the impact of the global warming," Shunji Anbe, an official at the observations division at the agency told the Associated Press.

In Washington, D.C., where cherry blossoms are also famous, peak bloom occurred on March 28. That's about a week to 10 days earlier than they bloomed a century ago, according to the U.S. National Park Service.

"Below average snowfall in the district in recent years may also be a factor in earlier blooming as bare ground can absorb energy from the sun faster than if there is snow cover," says Kelly.

"The average temperature was about 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal in Washington during the month of March."

View Article Sources
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  2. https://www.data.jma.go.jp/sakura/data/sakura_mankai.html

  3. http://atmenv.envi.osakafu-u.ac.jp/aono/kyophenotemp4/

  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320709001517

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  6. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/cherryblossom/bloom-watch.htm

  7. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/cherry-blossoms