Japan's famous cherry blossoms see earliest bloom in 1,200 years as climate warms

Japan’s famous cherry blossoms peaked earlier than ever this year. Experts suggest that the record date is the result of climate change.

The peak of bloom was in the ancient capital of Kyoto on March 26, the earliest date since official data collection by the country’s weather bureau began in 1953 and 10 days ahead of the 30-year average.

Osaka University researchers, who have compiled historical data on the subject from the diaries of emperors, aristocrats, governors and monks, said it was the earliest flowering in more than 1,200 years.

People wearing protective masks to contain the spread of the coronavirus will walk under cherry blossoms in Tokyo on Friday, March 26, 2021.Eugene Hoshiko / AP

Yasuyuki Aono, an environmental scientist who heads the team at Osaka University, said unusual weather changes have caused the cherry trees to bloom faster this year.

“In Japan, the winter in January of this year was very cold and the spring after the second half of February was very warm,” said Aono. “I think it accelerated the development of the cherry blossoms.”

Aono’s team had previously identified March 27, 1409 as the earliest flowering date in Kyoto – a day later than that year.

Shunji Anbe, an official with the Japan Meteorological Agency’s observation division, told the Associated Press that climate change was likely to be responsible for the early bloom.

“We can say that most likely this is due to the effects of global warming,” he said.

Kimono-clad women from Thailand take selfies under blooming cherry blossoms in Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan, March 27, 2021.Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Cherry blossoms mean impermanence and are one of the most important motifs in Japanese art and popular culture.

The cherry blossom season is usually greeted by many locals and tourists who take part in hanami, or flower-watching, a tradition that dates back more than 1,000 years in Japan.

Japanese companies and groups often have parties on ceilings under the cherry trees, although this was thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic last year.

Given the sensitivity of cherry trees to changes in temperature, the timing of their flowering can provide valuable data for climate change studies.

The weather agency is tracking 58 benchmark cherry trees across the country. This year, 40 of them have already peaked and 14 have done so in record time. The trees usually bloom from the first bud to all of the buds about two weeks per year.

According to a research report published in the journal Biological Conservation, the long-term recordings of the cherry blossom season in Kyoto also help researchers reconstruct historical climate patterns and examine the relationship between local temperature rise and global warming.

A motorist stops his vehicle on a street to take a photo under a canopy of cherry blossoms in Tokyo on Monday, March 29, 2021.Kiichiro Sato / AP

The average temperature for March in Kyoto has risen from 8.6 ° C in 1953 to 10.6 degrees Celsius in 2020, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. So far the average March temperature in Japan this year has been 12.4 ° C.

However, Aono warned that there could be other explanations for this year’s record bloom beyond global warming.

“In addition to greenhouse gases, there are many other factors that affect the climate, such as solar cycles and oceanic influences, which are particularly strong in Asia, so we can’t be sure,” Aono told NBC News.

“We must carefully consider whether or not it will be repeated in the future.”

The Associated Press and Arata Yamamoto contributed.

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