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Cherry blossoms reach peak bloom, tied for third earliest on record

Victoria Stevenson, who works for D.C. Public Schools, sits by the Tidal Basin and works on a sketch of the cherry blossoms Thursday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

On an unseasonably warm Friday morning, the National Park Service announced that Washington’s cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin reached an unusually early peak bloom.

The March 20 peak bloom is the earliest since 2012 (when it also occurred on March 20) and tied for the third earliest on record. In the Park Service’s 99-year record dating to 1921, the only years with earlier bloom dates were 1990 (March 15) and 2000 (March 17).

Normally, the cherry blossoms attract 1.5 million visitors, but much smaller numbers are anticipated this year.

Because of the coronavirus, local officials are urging Tidal Basin visitors to maintain social distance or avoid the area altogether. A live stream of the Tidal Basin is available to see the blossoms remotely.

Can you safely visit the cherry blossoms amid the coronavirus crisis?

On Friday morning, as the blossoms hit peak, the live stream showed a steady flow of visitors but much lighter crowds than usual.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs March 20 to April 12, canceled all events including the April 4 parade.

Abnormally warm weather during late winter and early spring propelled the blossoms to the early bloom, some 11 days ahead of the 30-year average of March 31 and two weeks ahead of the longer-term (1921 to 2019) average of April 3.

By definition, peak bloom occurs when 70 percent of the cherry trees are flowering.

Once peak bloom is reached, the blossom petals can remain for a week or so if it’s dry and winds are light. But in some years, petals have fallen off sooner because of wind, rain or frost.

This year, the best blossom viewing is probably between Friday and Sunday, although breezy conditions into the weekend may result in some loss of petals. On Saturday night, there’s an outside chance of frost, but temperatures should remain above freezing and the risk of damage or significant wilting is small.

By Sunday night and Monday, steady rain is expected, which may end the peak bloom period.

Due to the unusual warmth, peak bloom occurred on the early side of predictions.

The Capital Weather Gang had predicted peak bloom to occur between March 20 and 24 (a revision from an initial forecast of March 25 to 29). The National Park Service’s forecast for peak bloom was between March 21 and 24 (a revision from an initial forecast of March 27 to 30).