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UBC competition asks citizen scientists to predict when cherry blossoms will bloom

Click to play video: 'UBC invites Vancouver residents to take part in cherry blossom study'
UBC invites Vancouver residents to take part in cherry blossom study
With cherry blossoms making a very early appearance in Victoria this year, UBC scientists are inviting the public to take part in their blossom research. Paul Johnson reports – Feb 8, 2024

It’s one of the most anticipated signs of spring, but researchers say the annual bloom of cherry blossoms is getting harder and harder to predict amid a warming climate.

It’s a phenomenon one UBC researcher says could help us better understand the effects of climate change, and she’s inviting British Columbia and people around the world to try to better predict the bloom.

Elizabeth Wolkovich, an associate professor of forest conservation sciences at UBC, is part of a team running the International Cherry Blossom Prediction Competition, now in its third year.

Click to play video: '2022 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival'
2022 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival

“It is really just a way to crowdsource how to do the science better, come up with new ideas and models so we can better predict the future,” she told Global News.

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Wolkovich said cherry blossoms offer a potentially valuable way to assess climate change for several reasons — including the fact that data on when they bloom stretches back to 900 CE in Japan and China.

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“The cherry blossom festivals and this ritual of recording when they happened has been going on for well over 1,000 years, so they have incredible long-term records,” she said.

In addition, when cherry blossoms start is also indicative of how many other early trees leaf out, making them a useful data point for the wider ecosystem, she said.

Wolkovich said in recent decades, scientists have observed peak cherry bloom advancing by as much as two or three weeks.

“We never imagined anytime soon we would be worried about blooming in February,” she said. “But this year has been so warm I am getting a little bit nervous about how early we might see trees blooming.”

Click to play video: 'Cherry blossom trees bring out photo-seekers in Vancouver'
Cherry blossom trees bring out photo-seekers in Vancouver

Increasingly warm winters — which can prevent temperatures from dropping far enough for trees to start the biological process that causes flowering — have added to the complexity of trying to forecast the arrival of spring, she added.

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That’s where the citizen scientists come in.

The competition, a partnership between researchers at UBC and George Mason University in Virginia, invites individuals or teams around the world to submit their peak bloom predictions for five cities: Washington, D.C. (USA), Kyoto (Japan), Liestal-Weideli (Switzerland), Vancouver, BC (Canada) and New York City (USA).

Competitors can’t just take a blind stab in the dark, and will need to also submit at least a simple model explaining their prediction.

Entries in previous years have used a variety of predictive models, ranging from AI to sea ice melt.

Winners in four categories will be awarded a cash prize.

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