Early cherry blossom peak is a gentle, but serious, warning on climate change

The surest sign of spring in Washington, D.C., is when the city’s famous cherry trees burst into peak bloom, drawing residents and tourists alike to the Tidal Basin and Washington Monument grounds to photograph the fluffy pink-and-white blossoms.

This year, the blossoms peaked on March 21, a day ahead of the National Park Service forecast and among the earliest on record. Those prodigious petals are also the surest sign that the changing climate in the mid-Atlantic will bring more serious impacts than the timing of Washington’s tourist season.

Climate change may be urging us today to get out earlier for the cherry blossoms, but in the years to come it will warn us more urgently of severe weather and its impacts on public health, homes and businesses, and our communities.

The early peak is more confirmation of what the IPCC’s latest reports have already told us: A warming atmosphere is affecting all kinds of seasonal weather, and rapidly rising global temperatures will make these impacts more severe. While D.C.’s cherry trees are not an ideal indicator of climate change, Japan has hundreds of years of data on cherry trees that clearly shows peak bloom advances in response to climate change.

In the Nation’s Capital, February and March temperatures have warmed so much in the past 100 years that the average date for peak bloom has advanced from around April 4 to March 31. The five earliest peaks have come since 1990. Unseasonable temperatures can also damage some types of trees. Now, consider that an earlier spring means earlier blossoms on all flowering plants, meaning a marked shift in pollen and allergy seasons across the country.

Trees and flowers are just surface effects of shifting seasons, though. Rising temperatures can affect soil moisture, evaporation rates, river flows, lake levels, and snow cover. These shifts mean longer seasons for droughts, wildfires, floods and other severe weather events that take people’s lives, homes, and possessions, with costs in the billions.

Warming also affects growing seasons and regions for all kinds of agricultural products such as food crops and textiles. It will change the locations of forests and the quality of trees for lumber. This ultimately affects the availability, supply, and prices, of food, clothing, products we use daily, and the state of the economy in general.

The advancing peak bloom dates of Washington’s famous cherry trees offer a gentle warning – but a serious one – that people everywhere must work to enact ambitious climate and resilience policies. Policymakers in Washington can act on the climate and energy provisions of last year’s Build Back Better reconciliation package and draft legislation to help mitigate future impacts and create and appoint a U.S. Chief Resilience Officer and invest in improved federal tools, information, and services to inform community resilience investments.

As we enjoy the beautiful blossoms in person or on Instagram this weekend, let’s remember that they’re really warning us of the dangers of a changing climate.