One of Japan’s most celebrated natural spectacles has reached a grim milestone this year, arriving at its earliest date in more than 1,200 years. The early blooming – while undoubtedly still a sight to behold – comes as a fragrant reminder that climate change is forever tweaking the globe’s natural behaviors, from extreme winter storms to summers that could last half the year.
Cherry blossoms in cities such as Kyoto in Japan have long represented more than just a change in the season. For centuries, residents have recognized the trees’ annual blossoming with its own custom called hanami. The ancient tradition translates to "flower viewing” but is specific to cherry blossom (sakura, in Japanese), and people will gather beneath the trees to reflect on the beauty of nature and celebrate life.
The festivities carry global appeal and in a normal year (when COVID isn’t ruining all our fun), tourists from all over the world would flock to see the spectacle. It seems that now, however, arriving in time for the annual blossom might be hard to predict, as it was officially announced the 2021 cherry blossom began on March 26th. This unseasonably early date stands out as the earliest in 1,200 years, which can be corroborated thanks to a wealthy archive of cherry blossom festival documents dating back as far as 812 CE. The archive represents the longest-running and most in-depth record of any such natural spectacle anywhere in the world, with 732 logged dates spanning from the 9th century to the present day.
Historically, hanami season began in April, but this date has been creeping earlier in the past 100 years, getting ever closer to March. The most likely reason? Climate change. "Evidence, like the timing of cherry blossoms, is one of the historical 'proxy' measurements that scientists look at to reconstruct past climate," said climate scientist Michael Mann to The Washington Post. "In this case, that 'proxy' is telling us something that quantitative, rigorous long-term climate reconstructions have already told us – that the human-caused warming of the planet we're witnessing today is unprecedented going back millennia."
While an unfortunate twist in hanami’s history, such a shift demonstrates that plants and animals are seeing shifts in their natural behaviors as they try to keep up with the ever-changing environment. It’s not happening just in Kyoto either, with Tokyo seeing hanami arrive 12 days ahead of schedule. Despite a dip of seven percent in emissions during COVID-19's lockdowns, a significant change in the climate tide is needed if biological processes are to continue being able to function on a warming planet.
[H/T: Science Alert]