It’s official: Spring has sprung in the nation’s capital, and it’s early.
The National Park Service announced yesterday it predicts peak cherry blossom bloom will occur sometime March 14 to 17, possibly the earliest on record.
The emergence of the vibrant pink flowers is a bellwether in Washington, with the iconic cherry blossoms signifying the beginning of spring.
A mild winter and unseasonably warm temperatures are the two biggest factors contributing to the early emergence of the blossoms, said Mike Litterst, chief of communications for the National Mall.
“Our scientists and any meteorologist will tell you the same thing: Blossoming depends first and foremost on the weather,” he said. “We had a mild winter, the warmest February on record and basically no snow. All of that goes into the mix.”
Many plants and trees, including cherry trees, rely on temperatures to regulate their biological clocks. Changes in the Earth’s climate are wreaking havoc on many phenological phenomena like blooming flowers and leaf color changes in the fall.
Since 1946, weather station measurements across Washington have shown the region experiencing a 1.6-degree-Celsius per century increase in temperatures, double the global rate. The average date of peak blossoms is April 4, although that date has shifted up five days since record-keeping began in 1921, Litterst said.
Cold winter temperatures tell cherry trees to go dormant. In the eastern United States, after 221 degrees of warmth has accumulated over a certain number of days, the species has evolved to know it’s time to bloom, which allows it to spread pollen and procreate.
“In flowering trees, heat breaks winter dormancy, so earlier cherry blooming is consistent with heating caused by climate change,” said Patrick Gonzalez, a National Park Service climate change scientist, speaking in a 2016 video about climate change and Washington cherry blossoms.
Jake Weltzin, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist and the executive director of the USA National Phenology Network, said warmer temperatures are pushing many plant species to blossom earlier across the country.
“These signals are important and help [us understand] what’s going on in our environment,” he said.
The USA National Phenology Network announced last month that spring had arrived two to three weeks early in much of the Southeast. Although unseasonably warm weather may lift people’s spirits, an earlier spring also affects pollen levels, can rush the arrival of pests like ticks and mosquitoes, and may put crops at risk from late spring frosts (Climatewire, Feb. 27).
A 2011 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that by the end of the 21st century, if climate change continues unchecked, peak cherry blossoms could consistently arrive a month early.
Early blooms can also put a wrench in travel plans. About 1.5 million visitors will visit the capital to see the famous blossoms at the Tidal Basin. The annual pilgrimage is estimated to result in about $150 million in economic benefits for Washington.
“Lots of people already have their airplane tickets, and they’re bummed,” Weltzin said.
This year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival was scheduled for March 20 to April 9. That’s after the anticipated peak bloom.
In light of the new projections, Diana Mayhew, president of the festival, said organizers have moved the four-week celebration up five days, to March 15. More than 100 performances are being rescheduled as a result, she said.
Mother Nature isn’t always cooperative. But there might be a benefit. Mayhew expressed optimism that a longer spring could bring more visitors to Washington.
“The festival’s responsibility has always been to celebrate spring beginning with the blossoms,” she said. “Beyond the Tidal Basin, I’m hopeful this will bring a lot more visitation to Washington because of the timing.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.