Update: March 8 ― Cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C., are expected to reach peak bloom between March 19 and 22, the National Park Service announced Wednesday.
The NPS estimated earlier that peak bloom would occur between March 14 and 17, but temperatures this month will likely be colder than originally forecast. The National Cherry Blossom Festival will still be held between March 15 and April 16.
Thanks to February’s exceptionally warm weather, cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C., could hit peak bloom earlier than has previously been recorded.
As temperatures soared to nearly 80 degrees in the nation’s capital Wednesday, the National Park Service announced that this year’s bloom is expected to be in full swing between March 14 and 17 ― potentially edging out March 15, 1990, as the earliest peak bloom on record.
Peak bloom occurs when 70 percent of the Yoshino cherry blossom trees, the most abundant of the 12 cherry blossom varieties on the National Mall, fully bloom. April 4 is the average peak bloom date. Last year’s peak bloom took place on March 25. It occurred on April 10 in both 2015 and 2014.
“Washington, D.C., had a very mild winter ... and the warmest February on record,” Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the NPS, told The Huffington Post. “Certainly all of that contributed to the early projected peak bloom for the cherry blossoms.”
Cities across the country experienced record high temperatures throughout February. Temperatures in D.C. rose to 20 degrees above average some days, causing the fluffy white flowers on the trees to mature earlier than usual.
Despite the unseasonably warm weather preceding this year’s estimated peak bloom date, Litterst was reluctant to name climate change as the driving force behind the cherry blossoms’ accelerated maturation.
“Since the first half of the 20th century, the average peak bloom day of the cherry blossoms has shifted approximately five days earlier, and D.C. temperatures have increased by about 1.5 degrees Celsius at that same time,” Litterst said. “But the cherry blossoms trees are non-native species, so they grow in D.C. out of their natural context. So they may not be a reliable indicator for climate change.”
Some experts are more willing to connect earlier peak bloom to climate change, though. A 2012 paper from researchers at the University of Washington suggested global warming could result in February peak blooms for D.C.’s cherry blossoms before the next century.
“For its sensitivity to winter and early spring temperatures, the timing of cherry blossoms is an ideal indicator of the impacts of climate change on tree phenology,” the researchers wrote.
Over 1.5 million visitors flock to D.C.’s Tidal Basin every year for the month-long National Cherry Blossom Festival. The newly projected peak bloom dates prompted festival organizers to tweak this year’s start date to March 15, five days earlier than planned. The festival, which provides a significant boost to D.C.’s economy each year, will end April 16 as originally scheduled.