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Friday, December 09, 2022

Climate crisis is putting Japan’s cherry blossoms first

Every spring, crowds flock to admire Japan’s cherry blossoms—a bright pink and white bloom that has been revered in the country for more than a thousand years.

But human-induced climate change is causing the world-famous sakura plants to flower much earlier than usual, a new study has found.

Researchers from the Met Office in the United Kingdom and Osaka Metropolitan University in Japan say the climate crisis and urban warming have pushed the “peak bloom” flowering period forward by 11 days.

In 2021, cherry blossoms in historic central city Kyoto peaked on March 26 – the date of the first full flowering in 1,200 years. This year, cherry blossoms turned into color on April 1.

The scientists, who published their findings on May 20 in the journal Environmental Research Letters, said that excessive early blooming of cherry blossoms is now more common.

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The tendency for earlier peak blooms coincides with rising temperatures. Average March temperatures in Kyoto city center have risen several degrees since pre-industrial times, under the influence of both climate change and urban warming, the scientists observed.

One reason for this is the increased urbanization. Cities tend to be hotter than surrounding rural areas because buildings and roads absorb more of the sun’s heat than natural landscapes – a phenomenon known as the heat island effect.

But scientists say a bigger cause is the climate crisis, with the burning of fossil fuels raising temperatures across the region and around the world.

If planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions continue, Kyoto’s cherry blossoms could begin to arrive even earlier by the end of the century – by about another week, the study found.

“Our research shows that not only have human-induced climate change and urban warming already affected cherry blossom flowering dates in Kyoto, but that very early flowering dates, such as in 2021, are now 15 times more likely, and are expected to happen at least once a century,” said lead author and Met Office climate scientist, Dr. Nikos Christidis.

“Such events are projected to occur every few years until 2100 when they will no longer be considered extreme.”

The first cherry blossoms had wide-ranging implications for Japan’s economy and ecology, and are a symptom of a larger climate crisis threatening ecosystems everywhere.

“Spring cherry blossom flowering is a culturally significant event in Japan,” said author Yasuyuki Aono from Osaka Metropolitan University. The spring festivals that accompany the blooms are an important contributor to the local economy, so being able to predict the timing of blooms can be important.

The peak bloom period lasts only a few days. During this period, hanami – Japanese for “flower viewing” – is a popular activity.

It is common for locals and tourists to picnic under cherry trees, and businesses sometimes offer special set meals or products during the week.







Human-Induced Climate Crisis Is Already Feeding Japan'S Cherry Blossoms

The human-induced climate crisis is already allowing Japan’s cherry blossoms to bloom.


Michihiro Kawamura/Yomiuri Shimbun/ Associated Press


Why early cherry blossoms matter

But it’s not just a matter of tourists trying to catch peak blooms before petals drop – this can have lasting effects on entire ecosystems, and threaten the existence of many species.

The study said that rising temperatures on the nature’s calendar have had an impact on farming and land management practices in the country.

It also affects plants, insects and animals, which depend heavily on each other for their growth and life cycles. Changes in this cycle can start a chain reaction, causing damage to ecosystems.

For example, plants sense the temperature of their surroundings and if it is warm enough for a continuous period, they begin to flower and drop their leaves. Similarly, high heat can cause rapid growth in insects and other animals.

Different plants and insects may respond to increased heat at different speeds, putting their life cycles out of sync. Whereas they once timed their growth together each spring, now flowers can bloom before insects are ready, and vice versa – meaning there may not be enough food for insects or plants.

Changes in flowering dates are not limited to Japan or the cherry blossoms alone. This year, spring arrived early in parts of the United Kingdom and climate change is making plants in the British Isles flower more, on average, than a month earlier, according to a recent study.

The same phenomenon is already happening with many crops and economically valuable plants – creating major problems for food security and farmers’ livelihoods.

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