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An attempt to predict cherry blossom blooms with greater accuracy

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In addition to breathtaking views and warm weather every spring, enough tourists appear to cause long, winding lines of cars down Pend-Oreille road, crowding the UW campus. Most of these visitors end up swarming one of UW’s more iconic attractions: the cherry blossoms.

In an effort to aid these visitors in their quest to transform the Quad into an unnavigable mess, Ph.D. student Michael Bradshaw is leading a group of undergraduates to create an application that aims to increase the accuracy with which we predict the peak bloom of the cherry blossoms.

Peak bloom is the stage in the tree’s life cycle when the blossoms are flowered completely, and is officially defined as the time when at least 70% of the blossoms are open. This stage typically lasts several days. Although the time period of peak bloom can be roughly estimated based on weather patterns, research has shown that it is “nearly impossible” to predict more than 10 days in advance.

Both timing and duration of the peak blooming phase are dramatically dependent on weather, especially during the preceding winter. Warmer winters generally result in earlier blooming and extreme bouts of cold or frosts often result in no blooms at all. Similarly, calm weather can extend the length of the blooming period, while harsher conditions result in an early halt.

The application will attempt to predict peak bloom more accurately through picture and data analysis. The students working on the app take pictures of the trees and their bulbs, and mark which of the five stages of development in which the bulbs appear to be. They also enter the name of the tree and the date into the app to keep track of each. The app will attempt to create an accurate prediction through the combination of pictures and temperature trends.

A concern that Bradshaw also hopes to address is the effect of the climate emergency on the trees. Research on cherry blossoms in other parts of the world has shown that the warming climate has resulted in earlier blooms. 

These early blooms risk disrupting pollination if there is a time mismatch between the schedules of pollinating insects and the blooming of trees. Although not all of the effects of the climate emergency on cherry blossoms are known yet, Bradshaw’s app would be a helpful tool in analyzing this.

The data collection takes years worth of cycles to create a reliable prediction, so knowing if the app is successful will take many seasons of blooms yet to come. Bradshaw hopes that the team’s data collection will eventually result in a reliable trend similar to that used for the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C.

Eventually, the app could help explain the effects of climate change on our beloved cherry blossoms, as well as potentially help inform tourists when to book their trip to visit.

Reach contributing writer Joey Ellis at Twitter: @JoeyE917

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