Washington, D.C.'s famed cherry trees are befuddled by Earth's shifting climate, as the city's abnormally mild winter has prompted the blossoming of the trees sooner than typical. On Wednesday, the National Park Service and Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC, announced that peak bloom for the city's 3,700 cherry blossom trees will occur between March 22 and March 25. It comes many days before forecasts and predictions.
This year has made it difficult to "read the trees," according to NPS administrator for the national mall and memorial sites, Jeff Reinbold. One of the hottest winters on record, along with extreme temperature swings, has effectively delivered mixed messages to the trees.
This winter's district had extreme temperature swings, with 81 degrees one day and light snowfall two days later. According to Reinbold, the consequence is trees with the mood swings of a preteen. It's a busy place, he remarked. Unless temperatures abruptly decrease after the delicate petals have emerged, the early bloom isn't a major hazard. A premature frost, Reinbold said, would be disastrous for the flowers.
This year's bloom dates aren't unusual, but they are the second earliest that Cherry Blossom Festival President Diana Mayhew has seen in her 23 years with the organization. Because of this, her group has moved ahead by a week in a series of activities originally scheduled for the Tidal Basin.
According to Mayhew, this year is shaping up to be a banner year for the event, which serves as the unofficial kickoff to D.C.'s tourism season. Even as the festival was conducting press conferences to declare that year's peak bloom, the COVID-19 epidemic was spreading throughout the nation, thereby ruining the cherry blossom season in real time. Finally, organizers had no choice but to call off most in-person activities.
The first 3,000 cherry trees were given to Washington, DC in 1912 as a gift from the mayor of Tokyo. The Japanese embassy has continued to play an active role in the festival's upkeep and in arranging a wide variety of cherry blossom-themed activities and performances each year.
They have "special significance" in Japanese culture, Koichi Ai, chief of the Japanese Embassy's chancery, said on Wednesday. In his words, they symbolize "the transitory aspect of beauty and the unending cycle of life" due to their fleeting yet beautiful bloom cycle.
Due to the epidemic, the 2021 Cherry Blossom Festival was held entirely online, with bloom cams and other virtual events and activities available to attendees. Close to the pre-pandemic average of 1.5 million people came through last season. Mayhew has said her goal for this year is to achieve or surpass the figures achieved before the outbreak.
National Park Service (NPS) employees face a double whammy of climate change-related difficulties in their efforts to preserve the trees: frequent flooding in the Tidal Basin as a result of increasing sea levels. During high tide, a section of the promenade near the Jefferson Monument is submerged in the 107-acre man-made reservoir where the greatest number of trees is situated. Floodwaters breach the sea wall in many areas during the torrential rains that often occur in Washington, soaking the tree roots in salty brackish water.
The Tidal Basin's original 1880s layout also wasn't designed to accommodate the number of visitors it presently sees. With the opening of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in 1997 and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 2011, the Tidal Basin region has become even more popular with tourists.
The National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Trust for the National Mall and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) began a multi-year project in 2019 to repair the basin's crumbling sea wall and update and widen the walkways to better serve today's visitors. On Wednesday, Reinbold announced that the project's financing had been obtained and that design work on the suggested alterations had begun.
Chris Walsh, a retired University of Maryland horticulture professor, claims that the trees face a long-term danger from the combined effects of confounding temperature swings and Tidal Basin flooding. He also noted that this year, other flowering fruit trees like apricots and pears are also blooming early due to warmer winters and variable temperatures.
Everything is running on time this year, he said. As long as there isn't an unexpected cold snap, the effect on the cherry blossom trees should be minor, and the blooms shouldn't be affected. The yearly growth of protective bark may be affected by arboreal confusion, which might "place a lot of stress on the trees" and reduce their longevity, according to Walsh.
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