Cherry Blossoms in January

Posted on February 3, 2010

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1970—cut-offs in March

Spring comes early to Vancouver sometimes.  I remember early March of 1970, the sun shining, my friends and I triumphantly going walkabout in cut-off jeans.  It was exceptional to air our knees so early in the year.  Yet coming home after sunset, it was a little chill even so.

1977—cherry blossoms & funerals

And 1977, there was a phone call, again in early March.  My friend Leon was gone.  An early March morning, warm, the sun shining.  He had killed himself.  I remember, amidst the grief, amidst the heartbreak, the incongruity of his life ending on such a warm, hopeful spring day.

And later at Leon’s funeral—at funerals you often hear so much—I learned something about him which I didn’t know when he was living.

Gail said to me, Gail who had shared so much with Leon including a child, pointing to a little cherry tree which was blossoming near his grave, she said, “Aren’t you glad that tree is there?  Leon used to love to go down every year to Stanley Park when the cherry trees were in bloom.  He didn’t go there yet, this year.  The blossoms will fall right on his grave.”

I looked at that spare little cherry blossom tree.  Gail looked too.  And seeing cherry blossoms in March, more than thirty years on, I am still reminded of Leon.

2010—January 31st—brave new blossoms

But even memory is skewed in our brave new world.

A couple of days ago, the very end of January, there started to be reports and rumours around Vancouver about the cherry trees blossoming.  Reports and rumours which I might have entirely missed, but my daughter mentioned it.

Now in case you aren’t from around here, stranger, I should emphasize that cherry blossoms in winter are freakish even in Vancouver.  We may be the ‘tropics’ of Canada, way over here in the left coast, but it’s still Canada, it’s still January, and cherry blossoms in January still qualify as an extreme event.

Of course, I hadn’t seen any cherry blossoms with my own eyes on any of my usual routes.  I knew they could be out there. easily missed, because Vancouver is a city of mini-climates.  What blossoms one week in one neighbourhood might not blossom until a week later in another neighbourhood.  That would be true of cherry trees, and would account for why I had seen none of these blossoming trees myself.

But I really had to see.

February 1st.  Overcast.  Occasion drizzles of rain, but nothing serious.  Comfortable and warm springlike weather for tramping about.   I grabbed a camera and my hat and went looking.

Flowers were easy to find.

If I encountered no hosts of daffodils, row on row, still, flowers were everywhere in modest bloom, as close as next door, but lending

occasional splashes of colour to every block.  I don’t know how long the flowers had already been blossoming before I was minded to look at them.

(And am I already so used to the way things are, that flowers blooming next to the sidewalk in January doesn’t merit a second take?)

I encountered a reindeer, not yet warehoused after Christmas, taunted by a bed of posies.

The trees, of course, were budding and sprouting, almost universally, as I’d been noticing since mid-January.

The pods of one exuberant species had ripened and fattened to a pod thicker than my thumb.

And, after some walking, finally, down near the Fraser (and one whole Vancouver miniclimate down and over) I found an entire bank of cherry trees in blossom.

No reason to believe they had not been in blossom in January, which was only the day before.

Some of the petals looked already spent.

Look what they’ve done to the climate, ma.

Mother Nature, and baby too

So let’s return to that word, bizarre.

What we have here in Vancouver is a “perfect storm”—to coin a repulsively trendy but momentarily useful cliché.  The exceptionally warm weather, and its persistence, is the result of the confluence of El Niño—which is supposed to be strong this year—and ongoing global climate change.

El Niño blows warm.  La Niña blows cold.

El Niño and La Niña are influential, and occasionally dominating, climactic systems originating in the Pacific.  They alternate with each other in more or less regular cycles, and are responsible for some of the ups and downs of the earth’s temperature from year to year.  There was a strong El Niño system in 1998, making that an especially warm year. There was a strong La Niña in 2008, making that year (according to NASA anyway) the coolest of the past decade.

El Niño and La Niña are part of the shake and wobble in the climate record which make looking at individual yearly rankings—which was warmest? which was coldest?—such an unreliable way of measuring climate change.

Here’s where the splashing baby metaphor comes in.  You see, measuring climate change is a little like measuring the depth of a bathtub at the same time you have a splashing baby in the tub.  You can do it, but only by carefully accounting for the effect of the splashing baby.

The splashing baby, in respect of climatology, is representative of all the year to year variations arising from climate systems like El Niño and La Niña, or the North Atlantic oscillation, of sun activity, of volcanic activity, of the effect of aerosols and dust, and so on.  These kinds of things have always made the record wobble.  The challenge in climate science is reading past the wobble.  The challenge is to see what the record would look like if only you could take the splashing baby out of the tub.

Splish-splash.  2005 is a little warmer.

Splish-splash.  2008 is a little cooler.

Splish-splash.  Let’s have cherry blossom time in January.

Mutants and Wider Trends

So if baby has us all confused, how then should we look at it?

The Olympics are arriving in Vancouver soon. Let’s use an Olympic metaphor.

I believe it was the year of the games in Calgary.  I was watching the speed skating finals on tv with my brother.  Canada was supposed to be good that year, and in fact they were good.  However, a Japanese skater, dominant all the way, took the gold.  The question to ask is, which country had the better speed skating programme, Canada or Japan?  And I would add that, relevant to the question,  in the same race Canadian skaters came in second, third, fourth and fifth place.

My analysis at the time was that, while Japan had the best individual skater (my brother and I—affectionately, and with open admiration—referred to the Japanese skater as “that mutant”) Canada clearly had the better speed skating programme.

That’s how you should look at climate, it terms of the programme, not merely individual results.   The relevant information is not necessarily found in the fastest or the slowest, but the overall trend.

Thus the decade just past was the warmest on record.

The nineties were the second warmest on record.

The eighties were the third warmest on record.

A fool–or a climate denier–might say that say that each step on a staircase is flat.  But what use is there in denying that the staircase is ascending?

All photos by Father Theo, February 1st, 2010.