The springtime cherry blossom festival in Japan is an annual celebration that draws in spectators from all around the world. For the Japanese, the ‘hanami,’ or flower viewing, is a moment shared among family and friends who gather to celebrate nature’s beautiful and awe-inspiring rebirth. This week, however, cherry blossoms have been blooming two seasons ahead of schedule following two recent typhoons in the area. The premature fall blooms are extremely uncharacteristic of the sakura trees, which seemed to have been tricked by the extreme weather events to spring before … well, spring.
“I have never seen anything like this,” tree surgeon Hiroyuki Wada said to local broadcasters. “This year’s storms affected wide regions, and the strong winds may have caused the blooming.”
The strength of the September and October typhoons stripped many cherry blossom trees of their leaves, which experts are saying caused early indications for the trees to bloom. Furthermore, warm temperatures following the typhoons misled the trees by inviting the early flowering.
Normally, the earliest blooms are witnessed in the northern parts of Japan, where cherry blossom festivals begin as early as February in Naha. For the rest of the nation, the viewing season is concentrated around the first week in April, and the latest viewings in Hakodate and Sapporo occur in early May.
While the current blooms are not expected to affect this year’s spring hanami, the unusual events are drawing attention to the issue of earlier bloom patterns. Last year, a report in The Washington Post shed light on the work of Yasuyuki Aono, an environmental sciences professor at Osaka Prefecture University, who assembled a data set of Kyoto’s blossom-flowering dates. The research chronicles blooms as far back as A.D. 850 and, when graphed, shows an undeniable and worrisome change in bloom periods over the past 200 years.
Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann said, “Kyoto is just one location on the planet. But the large-scale warming of the past century is so distinct and widespread that it is increasingly evident from diverse records all around the globe.”
Mann isn’t wrong. In 1912, Japan gifted Washington D.C. 3,000 sakura trees as a sign of friendship between the two nations. The National Park Service’s records, dating back to 1921, show a similar pattern of earlier and earlier blooming each year. Meteorologist Jason Samenow explained, “In both Kyoto and Washington, the warming trends and earlier blooms are most likely due to a growing urban heat island effect and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
Beautiful though they may be, the second blooming of the cherry blossom trees are not a welcome sight for the Japanese nor for scientists. While there is hope that this is a once in lifetime event, there is still much work to be done in ensuring this anomaly doesn’t become commonplace.
Image via Don Kawahigashi