Global Warming is Hell on Party Planners

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Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Visitors take pictures of blooming cherry trees at Shinjuku park in Tokyo March 7, 2007. Japan began its countdown towards spring on Wednesday with the official forecast for the start of cherry blossoms, a week earlier than usual in most of the nation due to a mild winter.

Who knows the days and hours of the flower, the lifespan of the petal, the very moment when the cherry blossoms burst forth?

Actually, someone does know: Masaru Kida, of the global meteorological agency Weathernews. Kida is in charge of predicting when the cherry trees across Japan will begin their annual spring blossoming, or sakura — the cue for millions of Japanese office workers to crowd city parks for boisterous sakura parties, or hanami. There, they'll savor the beauty and brevity of the delicate pink blossoms, so much like life itself, by getting extremely drunk.

The trees generally bloom in March and April throughout Japan, but because people around the country plan festivals, tours and company parties around the blossoming, they need a precise forecast in advance.

The official Japanese Meteorological Agency, which bases its forecasts on a databank of more than three decades of climate statistics, confidently predicted that the model tree in Tokyo — located in the Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto place of worship better known for the controversy over its enshrinement of Japan's war dead — would begin to blossom on March 18. But that forecast had to be hastily revised last week, when officials discovered that a computer glitch had thrown off the prediction. As programming errors go, this was just slightly less catastrophic than the NASA mistake that caused the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter to take a header into the Red Planet in 1999. Chastened officials apologized on national TV, and changed the forecast to March 23.

Wrong again. Tokyo cherry trees began blossoming on Tuesday,March 20.

That's only one day earlier than the forecast by meteorologist Kida of Weathernews. His more accurate prediction is a result of combining careful crunching of meteorological measurements and history with a steady stream of data provided by a network of nearly 4,000 observers monitoring cherry trees around Japan. "We have people monitor specific trees in their region," says Kida. "They send us cell phone picture images on a daily or weekly basis, which gives us a much more accurate picture of how the cherry blossoms are doing in different regions."

Kida believes it's the scale of his sample that gives him the predictive edge over the government's Meteorological Agency, which tracks just 80 trees. And for a private company like Weather News, earning a reputation for accurate botanical prognostication can prove lucrative. "Our corporate clients are quite serious about getting it right," says Kida. "One employee of a very well-known company offered us money to get an accurate forecast because he was in charge of setting up the company hanami party, and getting the dates right is not a laughing matter."

Neither is the havoc that global warming may be inflicting on the cherry blossoms. This has been the warmest winter on record in Tokyo, and, perhaps not coincidentally, March 20 was also the third-earliest blossoming ever recorded in the capital. Because cherry trees require a period of cold weather in January and February to break their dormancy, Kida worries that if the climate continues to warm, the blossom dates could become even more erratic, or blossoming could even cease altogether. That would certainly drive home the reality of global warming for ordinary Japanese. "Rising sea levels and a depleting ozone layer are hard to grasp," he says. "But a week's difference in when the cherry blossoms bloom is a huge change for the Japanese."

With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo