Cherry Trees and Climate Change

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What can cherry trees tell us about climate change?


All life needs certain conditions to grow and thrive.

Plants need the right temperature range, rainfall, sunlight, and nutrients in the soil. For example, most of our food crops grow in regions of the world where the sunlight is bright and frequent, rain is frequent, the temperatures are mild, and the soil is rich in nutrients. Cactuses thrive in dry, hot deserts, and some types of mosses flourish in the Artic tundra. Growing conditions are described in growing zones. Check out this growing zone map: which zone do you live in?

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map: a map of the United States in colored bands indicating optimal growing zones

United States Department of Agriculture

Rolling, forested hills stretch toward the blue sky horizon

NPS Photo

Most species of plants have an optimal growing zone, and can tolerate neighboring bands. These growing conditions have been stable for a long time.

However, as global climate change is changing long-term patterns of temperature and weather, these growing bands will shift and change. If this happens slowly enough, over time some adaptation can occur.
A forest can slowly drop new seeds and new trees can grow where conditions are better, shifting the whole forest over many decades.

Crops grow in tight rows, a white painted house in the background under a blue sky

NPS Photo

What happens if an ecosystem tries to shift and there is no open landscape to shift into?

What happens to a farmer whose farm is no longer in the growing zone for the crops they are equipped to grow?

Slowing the rate of global climate change is critical for protecting all types of ecosystems, the wildlife who rely on the plants, and for protecting human communities.

Long term patterns of weather (climate) is not the only challenge facing the cherry trees. Every ecosystem is based on a series of critical interactions. Consider these three springtime interactions around blooming cherry trees:

Four images: a thermometer; cherry blossoms; a blue jay; a moth hovering over a purple flower

NPS Photos

As winter ends, the days grow longer. This change in light and length of the days triggers the migration of many species of birds. Birds rely on eating enough insects to eat to fuel their journeys and give them energy to reproduce and nest.
Enough warm days in a row signals the cherry trees that it’s time to bloom. Flowering plants rely on insects (including bees and butterflies) to pollinate their flowers; this is how flowering plants reproduce.
Warmer temperatures bring insects from their winter inactivity too. The insects rely on the nectar of the flowers as food, and rely on birds to keep their populations in balance.

Sea Level Rise & the Tidal Basin

Water overtopping the edge of the Tidal Basin next to cherry trees

NPS Photo

Water flows through the Tidal Basin of Washington DC with the tides rising and falling in the Potomac River. Twice a day at high tide, approximately 250 million gallons of water flow from the river into the Tidal Basin through the inlet gates. Maximum tide heights vary every day, based on the cycle of the moon and local rainfall. Over time, as polar ice caps and glaciers melt and sea levels rise, high tides are getting higher.

Tidal Basin outlet bridge

NPS photo

Rivers far upstream are fresh, oceans are salty, and in between there is a gradient, with river waters becoming saltier the closer they are to bays and oceans. The Potomac River is connected to the Chesapeake Bay. The water is brackish, or partially salty.

When the Tidal Basin floods, this brackish water flows over the roots of the cherry trees. Cherry trees are meant to grow on dry land and require fresh water. Enough salt intrusion in the soil can weaken and eventually kill a cherry tree.

Slowing the rate of sea level rise is critical to saving coastal areas around the world — including the cherry trees right here in the Tidal Basin of Washington DC.

Last updated: March 9, 2021