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About 140 of D.C.'s cherry trees will soon be cut down to adapt to rising sea levels


Here in Washington, D.C., the famous cherry blossoms have hit peak bloom, encircling the Tidal Basin with pink and white flowers. It may be the last bloom for more than 100 historic cherry trees that will soon be cut down as part of a project to adapt to rising sea levels. Jacob Fenston has the story.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Amit Gandhi is visiting D.C. from Florida with his family. Like any good tourists, they stop and take selfies at the Tidal Basin. It's an inlet in the Potomac River surrounded by blossoming cherry trees. But the bench they're sitting on isn't next to the water. It's actually in the water.

AMIT GANDHI: It's kind of sad. I mean, we are taking pictures here, you know, because it seems interesting, because, you know, there are benches in the middle of the water.

FENSTON: The Gandhis are holding their feet up, and there are ducks swimming around the bench. This is not some freak flood. In fact, it happens every day. Mike Litterst is a spokesperson for the National Park Service.

MIKE LITTERST: During high tide, every day, twice a day, that sidewalk, that walkway go underwater.

FENSTON: There are two forces working together to undermine the Tidal Basin and the trees and monuments around it. First, the land has been sinking. It was built using mud dredged up from the Potomac River bottom, and it's settled by about five feet over the past century. At the same time, the water level has gone up by more than a foot because of climate change.

LITTERST: Combining those two factors, you now have water six feet above where the seawall was originally designed to keep it out from.

FENSTON: Later this spring, the park service will break ground on a project to raise portions of the walkway around the basin. Officials project it will be high enough to withstand about a century of future sea-level rise, and it's engineered so they can build on top of it if needed. But it will require cutting down about 140 of the iconic cherry blossom trees, including the most famous one, Stumpy.

DEBBY SWOPE: I just fell in love with Stumpy. I saw him, and I looked him up two years ago and found out he has a Facebook page.

FENSTON: Debby Swope is an eighth grade history teacher visiting from Oregon. Stumpy is a survivor. At high tide, the tree's trunk is submerged in water, and much of it's rotted out. But each spring, the tree's three or four branches burst into flower. Stumpy and the other low-lying trees will be torn out to make way for construction equipment, but clippings from the famous tree will be sent to the National Arboretum to propagate new trees. Stumpy will be mulch, but the tree's memory and scrappy genetics will live on.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.


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Jacob Fenston
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