Kyoto Cherry Blossoms Bloom Earlier as Climate Warms, New Study Suggests

Kyoto Cherry Blossoms Bloom Earlier as Climate Warms, New Study Suggests
Cherry blossoms are a staple of spring in Kyoto, Japan. (Photo: Koichi Kamoshida, Getty Images)

Cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan are blooming earlier according to a new study from the Met Office in the United Kingdom.

Cherry blossoms are one of the most recognisable features of Japan, attracting 63 million people every spring to the country as they bloom, and are also a massive part of Japanese culture symbolizing the brevity of human life. But a new study from the Met Office in the U.K. led by Nikolaos Christidis and published in Environmental Research Letters has revealed through modelling that climate change coupled with urban heat islands may be causing the coveted Japanese cherry blossoms to bloom up to 11 days early.

Christidis and the researchers built their model with pre-existing data on cherry blossom flowering dates and daily temperatures, and most of this dataset was recorded by the Kyoto Meteorological Observatory dating back to 1881. Using these data, the researchers could project future cherry blossom flowering dates as they relate to temperature. The authors also explored the effect of Kyoto’s urban heat island — where urban areas are typically hotter than surrounding rural and suburban areas — on cherry blossom blooming dates by using temperature data from a meteorological station in Kameoka, a suburb of the city.

The researchers found that human influence begins to affect cherry blossom flowering times after the 1930s, where flowering occurs 11 days later in the present and 17 days later by 2100. The important variable here seems to be urban heat: Christidis and his colleagues observed that temperatures in Kyoto began to rise above temperatures in Kameoka in the 1940’s as the city became more urbanized. As a result, cherry blossoms in Kameoka won’t see Kyoto’s present rate of flowering until the end of this century as the suburbs stay cooler than the city.

Cherry blossoms are a sacred part of Japanese culture, and a huge tourist draw for the country, and this research helps illustrate how the ongoing climate crisis is screwing with them. Cherry blossoms are not the only thing on the frontlines of a changing climate, however, as climate change keeps threatening our water supply, our economy, and even our public health.