So gorgeous! So depressing! The cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan hit their peak bloom last week — the earliest date recorded in official records and, some say, the earliest date of bloom for the trees in more than 1,200 years. And climate change definitely has a hand in the trees’ early beauty show.
The Japan Meteorological Agency has kept official records of blooming trees across the country, which it measures by tracking the blooms on a number of “benchmark” trees, since 1953. This year’s date of peak bloom in Kyoto — March 26 — is the earliest date in their record-keeping, and is 10 days ahead of the 30-year average.
But data on the trees in the form of historical documents, diaries, poems, and other imperial records stretches all the way back to the early 800s (yes, that’s a three-digit date). Yasuyuki Aono, an environmental scientist at Osaka Prefecture University, has been combing through these records, and released them online as a dataset. The blooming of the cherry trees is a culturally significant time of year in Japan — there have historically been viewing parties and festivals on the arrival of the blossoms — making consistently tracking their peak season possible in historical documents.
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Aono’s records aren’t totally complete — he said he’s missing a few years, which is understandable given the amount of time he had to cover. But according to these historical records, the previous early record was set way back in 1409 — the blossoms hit peak on March 27 of that year.
It’s not a freak accident that the Kyoto cherry trees bloomed so early this year, or that historical data suggests the blooms are gradually getting earlier and earlier. The average temperature in the city for March last year hit 51.1 degrees Fahrenheit (10.6 degrees Celsius), a big increase from the 47.5 Fahrenheit (8.6 Celsius) average in 1953. Cherry blossoms are especially sensitive to changing temperatures — the trees only bloom for about two weeks each year — which means they provide a valuable barometer for how even minuscule shifts in climate can affect them.
This year’s extremely early bloom isn’t just confined Kyoto. All over Japan, cherry trees have been blooming earlier and earlier. Of the 58 “benchmark” trees the Japan Meteorological Agency keeps track of each year, all but 18 have already hit peak bloom — and 14 of those trees hit their peak in record time.
“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 Japan Meteorological Agency, told the AP.
The cherry trees’s cousins in Washington, DC — planted in March of 1912 after Japan sent over more than 3,000 trees as a gesture of friendship towards the U.S. — are also in full bloom right now. And these trees are also trending towards earlier blooms as temperatures get warmer in the city. A 2011 paper predicted that the sensitive trees could bloom an average of 5 days earlier than the historic average by 2050 and 10 days by 2080 under a midrange emissions scenario — and as much as 13 days earlier and 28 days earlier under the highest range emissions scenario.
Sorry to ruin anyone’s blossom-viewing parties this weekend. Go, uh, enjoy the scenery!