Farewell, Stumpy: D.C. Faces Loss of Over 150 Cherry Trees Due to Rising Waters

In the heart of Washington, D.C., stands a scraggly cherry blossom tree affectionately dubbed "Stumpy," captured in a photo on March 15. At high tide, the base of its trunk is engulfed by several inches of water, a poignant symbol of the challenges facing the city's iconic cherry trees.

The renowned cherry blossoms around D.C.'s Tidal Basin reach their peak bloom this week, drawing millions of visitors eager to capture the fleeting beauty. However, for 158 of these cherished trees, this year marks their final bloom. They are slated to be felled later in the spring as part of a larger project aimed at rebuilding and elevating the seawalls encircling the basin.

For many, including Jody Axinn, the impending loss of these trees represents a profound shift in the landscape of cherished memories. Axinn recalls fondly the romantic spot where she and her partner became engaged some two decades ago, now rendered unrecognizable by rising waters. "The part that we got engaged in is now under water. The whole path, the whole section, it's under water," Axinn laments, reminiscing about the submerged area she now shares with her children as the site of her engagement.

With each passing day, the walkways surrounding the Tidal Basin succumb to the relentless advance of high tides, flooding portions of the area with several inches of water, submerging roots, and partially engulfing park benches. Mike Litterst, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, observes the increasing frequency of these inundations, noting that what was once a sporadic occurrence has now become a daily event, occurring twice a day without fail.

The cherry trees encircling the Tidal Basin hold a rich history, planted over a century ago as a symbol of international friendship, gifted by the mayor of Tokyo. Yet, forces beyond their control threaten their existence. The land upon which they stand, constructed from sediment dredged from the Potomac River, is sinking, settling approximately five feet over the past century. Simultaneously, the water level has risen by over a foot due to the impacts of climate change.

Combining these two factors, the water now breaches six feet above the original seawall level, posing an existential threat to both the Tidal Basin and its cherished cherry trees and monuments. As D.C. grapples with the ramifications of these environmental shifts, the imminent loss of Stumpy and its companions serves as a poignant reminder of the urgent need for action to preserve the city's natural and cultural heritage for generations to come.

Nestled amidst the bustle of Washington, D.C., the Tidal Basin presents itself as a serene expanse, reminiscent of a tranquil lake. However, this picturesque scene belies its true nature—it is, in fact, a vital part of the Potomac River. Controlled by gates at its upstream and downstream ends, the basin experiences the ebb and flow of river water, synchronizing with the rhythm of the tides.

Yet, this symbiotic relationship with the river comes with its own set of challenges. As a tidal river, it mirrors the gradual rise of the world's oceans, a consequence of melting ice sheets and glaciers attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. This year, the cherry trees adorning the basin reached their peak bloom at the second-earliest date on record, a testament to the shifting climate. With peak bloom dates advancing approximately a week earlier in recent years, the warming climate underscores the urgency of addressing environmental concerns.

In response to these pressing issues, the National Park Service is poised to embark on a significant endeavor later this spring—a project aimed at raising sections of the walkway encircling the basin and along the Potomac River. This ambitious initiative seeks to fortify the area against future sea level rise, with officials ensuring that the new seawall will withstand approximately 100 years of projected increases in sea level. Flexibility is built into the design, allowing for further adjustments if necessary.

However, this endeavor necessitates difficult decisions, including the removal of trees lining the water's edge. Mike Litterst, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, emphasizes the urgency of addressing the underlying issues, noting that without rectifying the seawall, the loss of trees will persist unabated. The $113 million project, slated for completion in 2027, represents a crucial step towards safeguarding the basin's ecological integrity.

Among the casualties of progress is a beloved figure—the iconic "Stumpy." Despite its modest stature and rotted trunk, Stumpy symbolizes resilience and tenacity, captivating visitors like Debby Swope, an eighth-grade history teacher from Oregon. While acknowledging the necessity of the project, Swope's affection for Stumpy is unwavering, recognizing its significance as an emblem of perseverance.

As construction equipment prepares to encroach upon Stumpy's domain, the legacy of this remarkable tree will endure. Clippings from Stumpy and other trees earmarked for removal will find new life at the National Arboretum, ensuring that their spirit lives on through the propagation of future generations of cherry trees. In this cycle of transformation and renewal, the resilience of nature and human determination intertwine, offering hope for a sustainable future amidst the ever-changing landscape of Washington, D.C.

In conclusion, the impending transformation of Washington, D.C.'s Tidal Basin represents a pivotal moment in the city's history—a convergence of environmental challenges and human ingenuity. As the National Park Service prepares to undertake the monumental task of fortifying the basin against rising waters, cherished landmarks like "Stumpy" stand as poignant reminders of resilience in the face of adversity.

While the loss of iconic trees is inevitable, their legacy will endure through the propagation of new generations, ensuring that their spirit lives on. Through careful stewardship and collective action, we can mitigate the impacts of climate change and safeguard the natural wonders that define our nation's capital.

As visitors and residents alike bear witness to the evolving landscape, may we draw inspiration from the enduring spirit of Stumpy and its companions, fostering a deeper appreciation for the delicate balance between progress and preservation. In the ever-changing tapestry of Washington, D.C., let us remain steadfast in our commitment to a sustainable future, where the beauty of nature thrives for generations to come.