In over a millennia, cherry blossoms have brought the wonder of spring and showed the splendor of nature itself. Now, climate change has made things different for those beautiful flowers.

This year, after we experienced an unusually warm spring, the arrival of the cherry blossoms season in the city of Kyoto in Japan has happened sooner than expected. In fact, this is the earliest the cherry blossoms went into full bloom in 1,200 years.

Earliest Recorded Blooming Date In Kyoto

Imperial court documents and ancient diaries reveal that cherry blossom feasts go way back to 812 CE. In all those years, records show that the date the flowers bloomed earliest was March 27, 1409. This year, officials announced that the cherry blossoms were in full bloom on March 26.

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Such tradition of cherry blossom viewing has evolved from a favorite pastime among aristocrats to settling as a core part of Japanese living. In the first few days of April, Kyoto residents held hanami or flower viewing below the cherry trees to witness hundreds of white and pink flowers fully bloom.

Cherry blossoms typically start to flower in March, but their full bloom date, as buds are exposed to the skies, would fall around April 17. In the last century, however, this date was pulled back to April 5.

Tourists travel on a ferry near blooming cherry blossoms on the Okazaki canal covered with cherry blossom petals.
(Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) Tourists travel on a ferry near blooming cherry blossoms on the Okazaki canal covered with cherry blossom petals.

In 2021, a few days before April, the full bloom of the cherry blossoms has come to pass.

Scientists say that the timing of the cherry blossoms would be used to study climate variations in the past eras. This occurrence, they say, shows quantitative, arduous long-term reconstructions of the climate and that the global warming of the planet has been unprecedented.

The Japanese mountain cherry's flowering has been thoroughly recorded 732 times since the ninth century, which is the most comprehensive and complete detailing of a natural, seasonal occurrence anywhere in the world.

Flora, Fauna Shifting Activity Patterns Due to Climate Change

Checking through this 1,200-year-long record, scientists traced a clear blooming date trend akin to climate change itself. When spring comes in the Northern Hemisphere earlier due to global warming, some plants and animals are likewise changing their activity patterns, including how the flowers bloom.

Studies reveal that since the 1830s, mountain cherry trees in Japan begin to flower earlier over those years. From 1971 to 2000, these trees were found to have bloomed a week earlier on average than all averages recorded in the city.

Tree cutting to make way for roads and buildings would account for around a third of the change that is equivalent to 1.1 degrees Celsius warming and 2.3 days earlier flowering. Regional climate warming, on the other hand, accounts for the rest, which is about 2.2 degrees Celsius warming and 4.7 days earlier flowering.

Other Cherry Trees, Plant Species Affected

These data, however, are merely for a single family of cherry trees in Japan. Recent records show that other cherry trees from 17 taxa had similar change rates. Other species have bloomed 5.5 days earlier on average for the past 25 years, and this is caused by warmer temperatures in February and March.

This is also not specific to Kyoto. In Tokyo, cherry blossoms have also bloomed 12 days earlier than usual. 2021, in fact, ties with 2020 as the earliest blooming time in Tokyo, with the previous eight years, showing an earlier than its usual March 25 normal date of blooming.

 Projections suggest that when warming reaches 2.5 degrees Celsius, cherry blossoms would have fallen in the city of Takayama, located between Kyoto and Tokyo, by the time the annual spring festival starts.

In Washington, DC, cherry trees have likewise started to flower earlier after the warm spring. Last year, they were two weeks before the normal April 3 blooming date. Scientists expect the peak bloom in the US capital to occur earlier by an average of five days in 2050, and 10 days in 2080.

Cherry blossoms are not the only plant species affected by global warming. The Japanese apricot has also shown drastic changes in its flowering patterns.

As the spellbinding cherry blossoms are considered the best-recorded example of the biological impact of climate change, they present a grave warning of the worst things to come.

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